Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Robert Fletcher of SBPRA to Pay Author Restitution in Settlement of Florida Lawsuit

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware


Strategic Book Publishing & Rights Agency (SBPRA) is the tip of a fee-charging agenting/editing/publishing iceberg created by Robert M. Fletcher of Boca Raton, Florida. Since 2001, it has employed a veritable carousel of changing names (more than 40 to date), and Writer Beware has received hundreds, if not thousands, of complaints from authors who've cited abuses such as fees for literary agency services, fees for publishing, fees for editing, fees for marketing services, referrals to other branches of the business without revealing the connection, and more.

Fletcher's operation has long been the subject of an Alert at Writer Beware.*

In 2009, as a result of a public consumer-related investigation, the Florida Attorney General filed suit against Fletcher, his businesses, and several staff members under the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. Delays and legal maneuverings drew the case out for several years--but now, at last, there's a resolution.

According to documents obtained by Writer Beware via a public records request, Fletcher and his co-defendants (Leslie Williams, Lynn Eddy, and Mark Bredt, plus various corporate defendants**) have signed a Stipulated Settlement Agreement with the Florida Attorney General that, if certain provisions are fulfilled, will result in dismissal of the lawsuit. (The Settlement Agreement can be seen here.)

Via hate blog The Write Agenda (which over the past few years has been attempting--without much success--to discredit Writer Beware and other anti-scam activists), Fletcher has issued a triumphal-sounding statement declaring the Settlement "a victory."
“Anytime a business settles litigation with a government agency with no admission of guilt and no violation of the law, it can be considered a victory,” said Robert Fletcher, the CEO of a group of companies that have been dealing with government litigation for over six years.

“Unfortunately, most consumers believe that litigation equals guilt, but that simply isn’t true. This suit should never have been filed,” Mr. Fletcher continued. “If the litigation had any merit, they would have pushed it harder and not taken six years to deal with it.["]
Well...it's a bit more complicated than that.

It's true that Fletcher et al. have entered into the Settlement Agreement "without any admission either of guilt or that [they] have violated the law" (though if a court later finds that any of them have breached the Settlement's non-monetary provisions, the breach "shall constitute prima facie evidence of a violation of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act"). However, the Settlement does impose a number of conditions directly relating to Fletcher's alleged business practices at the time the suit was filed (for a look at some of those practices, see this article by a former Fletcher employee). And it requires him to pay a substantial sum in restitution to authors.

Among other conditions, Fletcher et al. must:
  • Agree to the permanent dissolution of the Corporate Defendants as well as "any related fictitious names".
  • Use their real names when communicating with clients. (In the course of the investigation, Fletcher admitted to employing multiple aliases.***)
  • Disclose their relationship with other entities when making referrals. (At the time of the lawsuit, authors were led to believe that the editing branch of the company--to which they were referred for critiques--was an unrelated enterprise, and that Strategic Book Publishing and Eloquent Books, Fletcher's vanity imprints, were also separate.)
  • Create and maintain clear royalty reporting and payment systems. (For instance, authors shouldn't have to request their royalties in order to be paid.)
  • Disclose in contracts "the exact services which are to be provided," and provide "a separate statement" to inform authors that "there may be additional fees which are not included...and to direct them to a price list of standard, more common fees which are associated with additional services."
  • Disclose in any documents relating to purported mergers and acquisitions whether the merger or acquisition was made by a corporate entity associated with Fletcher or other defendants.  (Historically, one of Fletcher's strategies for evading bad press online has been to claim that a new company name had just acquired the old company name[s].)
  • Make available to the Attorney General records and documents pertaining to the implementation of the Settlement, for a period of two years.
  • Hire--and pay for--an Independent Compliance Monitor, who for a period of one year will monitor and report on their compliance with the Settlement conditions.
  • Pay $10,000 in court costs and attorneys' fees, and provide author restitution of $125,000 (and they cannot file for bankruptcy prior to payment). Only when payment is fully made will the Attorney General close the investigation and file for dismissal of the original lawsuit.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a problem with this final stipulation.

The terms of the Settlement Agreement require payment of the full monetary amount on signing. But while the $10,000 in court costs was paid timely--on February 14, 2014, when the final signature was obtained--the $125,000 in author restitution was not provided, nor did it appear after March 7, when the Attorney General's Office sent a courtesy reminder to Fletcher's lawyer.

Accordingly, on March 20, the Attorney General filed a motion for enforcement of the Settlement Agreement, and for entry of a final default judgment against Fletcher and the other defendants, including a $10,000 penalty. The motion was granted by the court on April 15 (the signed order can be seen here).

Information I've obtained indicates that as of Friday, May 9, the money was still outstanding.

Over the six years of the suit, Fletcher has phased out most of the corporate names included in the original complaint (though some remain, and there are a few legacy URLs--such as www.theliteraryagencygroup.com--that default to current websites, although their interior pages haven't been removed). At the moment, he's doing business (and charging fees) primarily as Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Agency [SBPRA] and Publish On Demand Global [PODG].

He hasn't lost his penchant for multiple business names, however. Other corporate names in use as of this writing include Best Selling Book Rights Agency, Literary & Rights Agency, Professional Publishing Press, ePubCo, Rapid Illustrations, Author Services International, Author Marketing Ideas, and Author Success Stories.

I have a hunch that the story isn't over yet. Stay tuned.

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

* In 2008, Fletcher filed a retaliatory lawsuit against Ann Crispin, James D. Macdonald, and myself, alleging defamation, loss of business, and emotional distress, and claiming that he was losing $25,000 per month due to our warnings about his business practices.

In March 2009, Fletcher's suit against Ann and myself was dismissed with prejudice by the Massachussetts Superior Court, due to Fletcher's failure to respond to discovery or otherwise prosecute the lawsuit. Subsequently, through counsel, we filed a motion seeking recovery of our legal fees and expenses.That motion was granted in July 2009. The full ruling can be seen here, but here's the salient portion:
The plaintiffs have exhibited extreme bad faith in bringing this frivolous lawsuit for the sole purpose of causing great expense and harassment to Crispin and Strauss. Fletcher expressly states that it was his purpose in his emails. The Court concludes and finds that this case was brought in bad faith by the plaintiffs for the mere purpose of causing great inconvenience and financial costs to Crispin and Strauss (as set out in Fletcher's pre-lawsuit emails to the defendants). This case is frivolous and this Court finds so, finds that the two plaintiffs and their lawyer, Jerrold G. Neeff, knew it was frivolous before it was even commenced. This Court rules that the defendants, Ann Crispin and Victoria Strauss, are entitled to have all their legal fees and expenses incurred paid to them by the plaintiffs, Robert Fletcher and The Literary Agency Group.

This Court finds the claims asserted by the plaintiffs to be wholly insubstantial, frivolous, and not advanced in good faith.
** Corporate Defendants included in the suit: The Literary Agency Group Inc., Writers Literary & Publishing Services, New York Literary Agency, The Children's Literary Agency, Poets' Literary Agency, The Christian Literary Agency, Writers Literary Screenplay Agency, Rapid Publishing-Screenwriter911 Inc., Rapid Publishing Inc., The Global Book Agency, American Enterprises Group LLC, The Writer's Literary & Publishing Company, American Enterprises Group Inc., AEG Publishing Group, Eloquent Books, Strategic Book Publishing, Strategic Book Marketing, Group AEG, and ST Literary Agency.

*** Fletcher aliases mentioned in the suit: Robert West, Robert Williams, Bill Williams, Beth Stormes, Georgina Orr, Mary Bluestone, and Hil Mallory. There are many more. In a 2009 sworn statement (obtained by Writer Beware via a public records request), Fletcher admitted to using as many as 75 different email addresses.

#sfwapro

Friday, May 02, 2014

Author Solutions Inc. Expands "Partridge" Brand to Singapore and Africa

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

On April 30, Author Solutions Inc. (currently the subject of a class action lawsuit by authors who allege, among other things, breach of contract and unjust enrichment) announced expansion of its Partridge brand to South Africa and surrounding nations with Partridge Africa.

This follows expansion in March to the Malaysia region with Partridge Singapore. Both new ventures are being launched in "partnership" with Penguin Random House's subsidiaries in those countries, and both--while not promising any crossover--heavily leverage the PRH connection.

I blogged last year about Partridge India, the first of the Partridge ventures. Since that time, Writer Beware has received complaints from Partridge authors who've had problems with quality and service, similar to those experienced by authors with other ASI brands. Some of those complaints can be seen in the comments on my post.

Given what I know about ASI's PR strategies, I'm not surprised to see that both Partridge Singapore and Partridge Africa offer affiliate programs that allow individuals and organizations to make money by "introducing" authors to the services. From Partridge Africa:
Every customer or member is a potential author—you just need to present them with the opportunity to publish through your store, meeting place, or website. Here’s how it works:
1. Sign Up. Simply click the link below to review the official rules and submit your information.

2. Promote Partridge Africa. Affiliates will receive—at no cost—all the marketing materials you need to get started. We will provide graphics you can use on your website. You can be assured that the people you refer will get the services they desire. The mission of Partridge Africa is to empower authors and help them fulfil their book-publishing goals.

3. Earn Revenue. How much you earn depends on your promotional efforts and the resulting referrals and authors who sign up to publish with Partridge Africa. But the more interested individuals you send our way, the more you can earn.