Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers and industry news and commentary. Writer Beware is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

November 21, 2014

MeGustaEscribir: Author Solutions Inc. Expands Into Spain

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Today I'm highlighting a post by author and self-publishing expert David Gaughran. Like Writer Beware, David has been following Author Solutions Inc. closely over the past few years, and has written a number of important, in-depth articles about ASI and its operations.

From David's blog:
Penguin Random House is speeding up the international expansion of its vanity press operations, while also seeking to integrate them more closely with the traditional side of the business – hoping to counteract flat growth for Author Solutions at a time when self-publishing is booming.
The expansion is MeGustaEscribir, which ASI will launch next Tuesday. ASI's press release describes MeGustaEscribir as "the supported self-publishing platform of Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial" (Grupo Editorial is PRH's Spanish-language trade subsidiary).

ASI has created other pay-to-play imprints for major publishers--WestBow Press for Thomas Nelson and Archway Publishing for Simon & Schuster, among others--but this is the first time it has created one for its parent company (as most of you probably know, ASI is owned by PRH).

David observes that MeGustaEscribir offers the "mix of crappy publishing packages and ineffective, overpriced marketing services" that's characteristic of all ASI imprints. It also charges a form of reading fee:
Heavily touted on the MeGustaEscribir site is the Recognition Program – where customers will be recommended for review by an editor from Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial (that link is in Spanish, but Google Translate does a mostly reasonable job of getting the gist across).

Here’s the really shocking part. Consideration by a Penguin Random House editor is contingent on writers undergoing an Editorial Evaluation Report by MeGustaEscribir. The only publishing packages which contain this Evaluation Report are priced at 2,899 Euro (approx $3,600) and 3,999 Euro (approx $4,970).
(This actually reminds me of the "Publisher's Choice" program that iUniverse used to offer before it was acquired by ASI. Publisher's Choice promised participants the possibility--though not the certainty--of placement on Barnes and Noble store shelves, but only if they first bought a "Premier Plus" package, including an editorial evaluation, for over $1,000. See Writer Beware co-founder Ann Crispin's 2006 post about this program.)

David goes on to discuss the importance of international expansion for ASI, which appears to be facing flattening sales (that's sales of services to writers, not book sales) in the USA:
Out of the 211,269 self-published titles tracked by Bowker in 2011, Author Solutions imprints accounted for 41,605 books while a (reputable) competitor like CreateSpace registered 57,602 titles.

Fast forward to 2013, and the self-publishing boom has taken full effect – for everyone except Author Solutions. Bowker tracked 458,564 self-published titles which had been assigned ISBNs. Virtually none of that growth went to Author Solutions, despite launching several new imprints, including a high profile vanity press partnership with Simon & Schuster (Archway Publishing).

Author Solutions’ total for 2013, despite the staggering growth in self-publishing during that two year period, was just 45,574 – a barely noticeable increase on 2011’s numbers. For comparison CreateSpace registered 186,926 ISBNs that year, and Smashwords came out of nowhere to register 85,000.
Why has ASI's growth in the USA, long its primary market, slowed down so much? David feels that "a years-long campaign by writers is starting to take effect", and I agree. The number of online complaints and exposes has been mounting; just Google ASI or any of its imprints to see examples.

But more significant, I think, is the huge success of free electronic self-publishing platforms and distributors like KDP, Kobo, and Smashwords, which allow authors to launch themselves into a space where the perennial handicaps of print self-publishing--distribution and price--don't exist. ASI's business model, on the other hand, is inextricably linked to POD. For savvy self-publishers, ASI's services have come to seem not only questionable or costly, but old-fashioned as well.

No wonder ASI is reaching out into new markets. Via its Partridge imprint, ASI is already doing business in India, Africa, and Singapore. MeGustaEscribir expands its presence to Spain. What's next? Japan? China? Stay tuned.

November 14, 2014

Scam Warnings For Freelancers

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Identity Theft

This week, freelance writer Heather Boerner (who has published with such well-known venues as The Atlantic and The Washington Post) alerted me to her experience with a scammer.

Heather discovered the scam when she was contacted, out of the blue, by an individual who claimed to have hired her through a freelance jobs bidding website called oDesk. From an article about the scam by one of Heather's colleagues, Paul Raeburn:
[Heather] quickly realized that she had been the victim of identity theft. Somebody--a fake Heather--had gone to Boerner's website, copied her resume, downloaded her photo, linked to her website, and created an oDesk account offering services as a writer....

"It's an elaborate scheme. It's really bizarre," said Boerner, who has alerted some of her colleagues..."The guy who notified me of this said he had hired Fake Heather to do some writing. Fake Heather then hired people to do the writing for her [or him]." The person who notified Boerner said he gave Fake Heather $1,000.
Heather isn't the only one who has been victimized in this way. Freelancer Carol Tice encountered the same scam (and possibly, the same scammer). From Raeburn's article:
[Tice] received an email from someone wanting to know if Tice wanted to continue the writing project they were working on. "I assured her that I had never started article writing for her, and certainly wasn’t going to continue," Tice wrote in a blog post. "I didn’t even have any idea what topics she was having articles written about!"

As was the case with Fake Heather, Fake Carol set up a Skype account outside the U.S. (in London), and used Tice's name, photo, and website to connect with clients on a freelancers' website (in this case, Elance).
It's not clear whether this is a new trend in scams, or one person's ripoff scheme. But if you post your resume on bidding sites, it's something to be aware of.

How can you protect yourself? Some suggestions from freelancer Barbara A. Tyler:
♦ I strongly recommend that writers Google themselves on a regular basis. That can provide the first tip-off that someone is pretending to be you.

♦ Pay attention to any emails you get that seem off-kilter for whatever reason and investigate them like Carol did.

♦ From the flip side… if you get work through bidding sites (any bidding site, not just Elance) always, always, always do as much research as you can into the person hiring you.
Free Samples

This is not a new scam--in fact, it's a very old one. But I was reminded of it this week when a freelancer forwarded me this email she received when she responded to an ad:
Thank you for your interest in the Freelance Creative Copywriter role we recently posted. We reviewed lots of responses and based on your background/experience we have decided to move you to the next step in the process.

The next step in the process involves completing the attached assignment. Please read the background information and then put together your copy. We ask that you return your completed assignment to me by Monday, November 10th.

This will help us gauge your writing skills and abilities as it relates to meeting our needs and expectations.
Now, this "next step" may simply have the company's cheap-ass way of auditioning writers naive enough not to know that pro freelancers don't provide free samples (they may agree to write test pieces to see if they're a good fit, but not without compensation). Not precisely a scam, though certainly a scumbag move.

But it may also have been a sleazy outfit's attempt to obtain free content--in which case the writer, having completed the "assignment," would get the brushoff and later on discover that her copy had been used on the company's website or elsewhere online, without attribution. (In fact, this is something that can happen even if you do get paid.)

Wisely, the freelancer decided to blow the company off. It can't be said too often: always carefully research any job you're offered or are solicited for. Google is your friend. And listen to your gut. If something seems off, don't ignore it.

November 12, 2014

Alert: Cookbook Marketing Agency

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware


Are you thinking of creating your own cookbook--or have you already created one? Good news: an apparently new venture called Cookbook Marketing Agency is here to help.
Cookbook Marketing Agency (CMA) is a global book marketing agency, publisher and branding consultancy. Along with our partners, we have helped thousands of authors, as well as other publishers increase their book sales potential.
Sounds pretty impressive--if not very specific. That's OK, though, because CMA is ready to offer you a whole menu of assistance, including a promotional plan.
Some benefits you will enjoy as a client of Cookbook Marketing Agency:

1. Prominently displayed at national and international book fairs and shows
2. Featured in a proprietary catalog of authors and titles
3. Ability to have E-book distribution
4. A professionally written and distributed press release of your Cookbook
5. Access to a full staff of experts to aid with the design, editing, and distribution of your Cookbook
And much more!
There's even an affiliate plan, where you can earn 20% of "any revenue generated by your leads."

If you've guessed that none of this is free, you're right. There's a fee attached to every service provided by CMA--including its affiliate plan, which requires would-be affiliates to hand over $20 for "business calling cards." The affiliate plan page, however, is the only place on CMA's website where it's explicitly acknowledged that CMA clients are buying services:
You get paid if the prospective customer buys any of our products — anything from an a la carte marketing or publishing service or a full marketing campaign.
Another acknowledgment that's hard to find: the name of the company that's actually behind CMA. There are hints on CMA's catalog page, where all the listed books are published by a single publisher whose initials may be familiar to readers of this blog. But it's only in CMA's press release that the truth is revealed: CMA is "a publishing imprint of Publish On Demand Global (PODG)."

Why is this a concern?

Well, PODG and its other half, SBPRA (Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Agency), has been on Writer Beware's radar--under a dizzying variety of names--since 2001. Starting as a fee-charging literary agency, it expanded over the years into other agencies, vanity publishers, and marketing services, charging fees all along the way. Writer Beware has received hundreds of complaints. SBPRA/PODG and its owner, Robert Fletcher, recently settled a deceptive business practices lawsuit brought by the Florida Attorney General; among other things, the settlement requires Fletcher to pay $145,000 in court costs and author reparations. (For the full SBPRA/PODG story, including its failed defamation lawsuit against Writer Beware, see our Alert.)

It's always a good idea to know who you're really working with.

November 7, 2014

Solicitation Alert: LitFire Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware
EDITED 11/11/14 TO ADD: Either as a result of this post or of the accompanying discussion at Absolute Write (which includes a lot more speculation and information about possible LitFire staff names and aliases), changes have begun to appear on the LitFire website. I've therefore appended a bunch of screenshots at the bottom of this post.


A few weeks ago, I began hearing from writers who'd been solicited, out of the blue, by a company called LitFire Publishing. In some cases by phone, in others by email, a LitFire "consultant" claimed to have received or seen information about the writers' books (or even to have read them), and wanted to offer a wonderful marketing opportunity--for, of course, a four-figure fee.

Here's how LitFire describes itself and its services (also see the screenshot at the bottom of this post):
Founded in 2008, LitFire allows authors to skip the hassles of traditional publishing. The company started out as a publisher of digital books. With hundreds of published titles and more than 50 publishing partners, we have learned how to succeed and soar in the eBook market. In 2014, LitFire expanded its horizon by offering self-publishing. Today, we offer all the services you would expect from a traditional publishing house – from editorial to design to promotion. Our goal is to help independent authors and self-publishers bring their book production and marketing goals to fruition.
In other words, LitFire is one of those outfits that offers publishing packages, but makes much of its profit from hawking adjunct services such as marketing.

Cold-call solicitations, hard-sell sales tactics (writers report receiving repeated phone calls and emails), expensive publishing packages with silly names, absurdly overpriced "marketing" services: are you detecting more than a whiff of Author Solutions, the much-criticized self-publishing service conglomerate that owns AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris, and Trafford, among others?

In fact, at least four of LitFire's "consultants"--Portia Peterson, Tori Mesh, KC Normanns, and Mark Advent (also see the screenshots at the bottom of this post)--are or were employees of Author Solutions imprints. And LitFire's publishing agreement bears many similarities to an older AuthorHouse agreement (from 2012; the most recent agreement, which is much more complicated, was revised in 2014). Compare, for instance, AuthorHouse's Clause 18, Termination by Service Provider, to the last paragraph of LitFire's Clause 14, Refunds and Work Termination.

But there are reasons other than possible Author Solutions connections to be wary of this company.

- False or conflicting claims. Of the "hundreds of published titles" and "more than 50 publishing partners" claimed in LitFire's description of itself, there is no trace.

Eight books appear on Litfire's website, only one of which seems actually to have been published by LitFire. That one shows up on Amazon, along with just two others. A few more surface with a websearch (interestingly, these also show up--with different ISBNs--as having been published by Author Solutions imprints). All in all, that's seven titles. Total.

LitFire also appears to be confused about how long it's been in business. Its website claims a 2008 founding date, but its URL was only registered in June of this year. On the other hand, according to one of its email communications, it's been around for 8 years, which would push its founding date back to 2006.

- Illiterate written materials. Most of LitFire's website, while it won't win any prizes for business communication, doesn't read too badly. But the LitFire correspondence I've seen...yikes. For example, this email from "Senior Publishing and Marketing Consultant" Tori Mesh:


The most charitable thing I can say is that it reads as if it were written by someone for whom English is not a first language. Tori's resume includes a current or former stint at AuthorHouse UK; we do know that a big portion of Author Solutions business is outsourced to the Philippines, and that Philippine staff use American or British-sounding aliases, presumably to make it seem as if they actually work at AS headquarters in Bloomington, Indiana, but actually resulting in some very odd-sounding names. (See, for instance, this recent Author Solutions marketing pitch.)

Also check out this blog post on, er, craft, from Jill Bennett, LitFire's Book Marketing Specialist. Here's a sample (also see the screenshot at the bottom of this post):
When can one’s writing writhen out a reader’s metaphysical standpoint?

How about this: Somebody wrote a book saying that the laws the world is following today: spiritual, political, logical are but a rehash of the Primo genial world that the Primo genial human beings have cleaved to and everything everyone believed in that world turned out to be flawed and destructive, thereby the First Apocalypse. He doesn’t claim himself a Messiah or a prophet or whatnot but proves his evidences authentic, like the codex of that first world, every inch of it intact.

I did not make that up.

- Plagiarism. A solicitation email from "Senior Marketing and Publishing Consultant" Mark Advent (formerly of Trafford) is a peculiar mix of the kinds of ESL mistakes found in Tori Mesh's email and relatively fluent passages. There's a reason for this: Mark has borrowed the good bits from others, without bothering with attribution.


The red-boxed passage is from an article by marketing expert Penny C. Sansevieri (see the last paragraph). The blue-boxed passage has been filched from speaker and consultant Al Lautenslager.

Tsk, tsk.

So what is LitFire? Despite the many Author Solutions connections and similarities, I don't suspect that LitFire actually has anything to do with Author Solutions itself. AS is a big company, and it has no need to be coy about what it does. If LitFire were a new AS imprint, we'd know it. I think it's far more likely that LitFire is an Author Solutions clone, created by former or current AS workers in hopes of siphoning off a share of their employer's business.

Either way, one thing is clear. If you hear from LitFire, just say no.

UPDATE 1/17/17: As the comments below will attest, LitFire is still at it. And it seems like they're not even trying all that that hard. Today I got this:
Good day Mark,

How are you ? I hope you are doing great. I am Kate Avila, Senior Consultant with LitFire Publishing. I have been trying to get in touch with you in regard to your Book Project. I’m hoping you could get in touch with me as soon as you can. We’d like to know if you are still pursuing the book because we would like to help you.

Feel free to visit our website to know more information about us https://litfirepublishing.com/

Please feel free to contact me at 1 800 511 9787 ext. 8125 or send me an email at kateavila@litfirepublishing.com.

I am looking forward for your response.
Mark, whoever you are, glad to take the bullet for ya.

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

SCREENSHOTS

LitFire's description of itself:

Portia Peterson:

Tori Mesh:

KC Normanns:

Mark Advent:

Jill Bennett:

Jill's illiterate blog post:

 
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