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.

March 31, 2015

Bookbzz -- Buzzed Off?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last week, I started hearing from writers who'd entered a contest sponsored by an outfit called Bookbzz, which describes itself thus:
Bookbzz.com was designed as a simple but powerful book marketing engine to enable authors and publishers to better market their books.

By gathering together basic information and enabling social sharing we are able to provide authors with a free marketing suite, reviews and tell-a-friend engine to promote their books.
While listing a book is free, Bookbzz pushes its Premium Membership option, which costs $7.50 per month (for one book) and offers the "opportunity" for writers to pay much more for additional promotional services.

The contest, Prize Writer Competition 2015, solicited entries in ten categories (children's books, fantasy novels, etc.) and promised cash prizes to the top three finishers in each category, who were to be chosen by public vote. (Contest description and guidelines no longer seem to be present on the Bookbzz website, but you can still see happy posts from finalists.)

On March 5, Bookbzz announced the winners...and promptly vanished. Authors assumed it was a technical glitch. But as time went on and the website did not reappear, and emails and social media posts disappeared into the ether with no response from either Bookbzz owner Conrad Murray or his partner, Paige Doyle, writers got anxious--and then angry. Author Helen Hollick blogged about her experience:
The whole thing, the Bookbzz website, the offer to advertise books and running the competition it transpires, was very possibly all a scam. Or maybe the people running it, Conrad Murray and Paige Doyle didn’t make the money they had hoped for from eager punters and got fed up with it? Maybe the website is down because of computer problems – it’s possible, but many disgruntled authors who have been eagerly waiting to hear about our prize money since the beginning of March have not had emails responded to. No answers on Twitter or Facebook. No response from connections via Mr Murray’s other publishing ventures of Swan’s Nest Publishing Canada and Bookmarq. His contact e-mail on Linkedin bounces back as unknown.
Frustrated writers have begun filing Paypal disputes in order to get their entry fees back. Possibly in response to this, the Bookbzz website popped back into existence this week. But it (along with Bookbzz's social media) hasn't been updated since March 5...apart from this sad addition to Conrad Murray's prizewinners announcement:
A few of you will be aware that a long-time relationship with someone I have lived with for 27 years has come to an end and I am taking some time to adjust to an empty, silent house with no laughter. It may take me some time to get back to being fully functional.

For the last month Paige has had to cope with pretty much everything on his own which is difficult enough at the best of times, let alone when we are trying to wrap up a competition. We will be writing to all Prize Winners and placed books within 2-3 days and adding flashes to your book pages plus sending you your winners’ publicity pack and prizes.
Authors, who are shedding no tears, also aren't holding their breath.

Who is Conrad Murray? His social media profiles sound ever so impressive--though on a closer look they're kind of vague, and if you decide to dig into them, you'll have a hard time tracking down the companies where he says he's worked. There's also some confusing interpenetration: for instance, a book Murray claims to have been hired to market through his "marketing and production services" company, Bookmarq.net, actually appears to be a book he published through his publishing company, Swan's Nest Canada (which does not appear to have published anything else).

I wrote last year about Bookmarq.net's Finding a Publisher service, one of those worthless middleman services that--for a fee, of course--claims to market writers to literary agents. Other Bookmarq services are similarly dubious--a Rights Reversion Management scheme that offers no examples, editing and cover design services that provide no staff credentials. I can find no trace of any books ever published by Bookmarq (other than the one mentioned above), although it claims to provide self-publishing services. Bookmarq and Murray also ran afoul of the folks on Kboards when Murray (via his supposed partner Paige Doyle, whom many writers do not believe is a real person) tried to shill Bookmarq's services (for the short version, see David Gaughran's evisceration of Murray's claims). 

All of which makes the happenings at Bookbzz somewhat less surprising--though no less distressing.

Will Murray make good on his promise to contact prizewinners and release the prizes? No word as yet. Either way, I would love to hear from winners--either in the comments here or via email to Writer Beware.

I attempted to reach out to Conrad Murray for comment, via social media and the contact form on the Bookbzz website. As of this writing, I haven't received a response.

UPDATE, 4/4/15: Murray has posted a rambling statement on the Bookbzz site, claiming that he has "lost control of Bookbzz content", that "the business accounts were systematically emptied," and that "In the absence of any money from the bookbzz.com business accounts [prizes] will have to be paid from my own resources," a task he "hopes to have completed" by the end of April. A screenshot is below, in case the statement disappears.

Bookbzz winners, please keep me posted, whether you do--or do not--receive your prizes.

March 26, 2015

Second Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against Author Solutions Inc.

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In April 2013, the law firm of Giskan Solotaroff Anderson & Stewart filed a class action lawsuit against Author Solutions, Inc. (ASI). The case survived various motions to dismiss, and this past February completed discovery and filed for class certification.

Now the same law firm has filed a second class action against ASI.

Dated March 23, 2015, the complaint was filed in District Court in the Southern District of Indiana (ASI's headquarters are in Bloomington, Indiana) on behalf of two new plaintiffs, Patricia Wheeler and Helen Heightsman Gordon. It alleges fraud, unjust enrichment, and violation of various statutes and consumer protection acts, including the Indiana Deceptive Consumer Sales Act and the Indiana Senior Consumer Sales Act (Wheeler is over 60 years of age).

ASI's parent company, Penguin Group (which was bounced from the first class action early on) is not named as a defendant.

The complaint, which can be seen in full here, focuses largely on ASI's sales tactics and marketing services.
5. In truth, Author Solutions operates more like a telemarketing company whose customer base is the Authors themselves. In other words, unlike a traditional publisher, Author Solutions makes money from its Authors, not for them. It does so by selling books back to its Authors, not to a general readership, and by selling its Authors expensive publishing, editing, and marketing services (“Services”) that are effectively worthless.

6. Author Solutions aggressively sells publishing and marketing services (“Services”) to its Authors through a large sales force of telemarketers, largely based in the Philippines, who introduce themselves as the Author’s personal "Publishing Consultant” or “Marketing Consultant.” This has the deceptive effect of leading Authors to believe that the “consultant” has a background in publishing or marketing and has the requisite skills to guide the Author through the publishing process. In fact, these “consultants” are simply commissioned sales people with aggressive quotas who are not required to have any publishing or marketing experience. Author Solutions never discloses this fact to Authors.

7. Similarly, the Company employs scores of “Book Consultants,” a sales team whose goal it is to sell hundreds of the Authors’ own books back to the Author. However, Author Solutions does not employ any sales force to sell an Author’s books to the general public - referred to as the retail channel – because, unlike with traditional publishers, an Author’s retail success is largely irrelevant to Author Solutions.
Both plaintiffs in this new lawsuit spent small fortunes with ASI: Ms Wheeler dropped nearly $25,000, and Ms. Gordon handed over more than $10,000. Details of their experiences are included in the complaint; even if, like me, you've seen a lot of ASI complaints, it makes for pretty awful reading.

If you've published with an ASI imprint and would like to share your experience, there's a form on Giskan Solotaroff's website where you can do so.

EDITED TO ADD: In a three-part series at The Independent Publishing Magazine, Mick Rooney has dug deep into the depositions from the first class action: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. There are some fascinating revelations about ASI's practices and policies, especially in regard to the "partner imprints" it has established with major publishers.

For a wrapup, see David Gaughan's post: Author Solutions and Friends: The Inside Story.

March 23, 2015

Rights Grab: Omni Reboot (Updated)

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Do you remember Omni Magazine? Created in the 1970s by Penthouse founder Bob Guccione, it published some of the most iconic names in science fiction, along with in-depth articles on science and the paranormal. It ceased publication in 1998.

In 2013, Omni's archives were purchased by Jeremy Frommer of media company Jerrick Ventures. In addition to putting all past issues of Omni online, Frommer resurrected Omni as an online-only publication called Omni Reboot.

Omni Reboot, which describes itself as "the intersection of science, technology, art, culture, design, and metaphysics," has published features and fiction, and is open for submissions. Its website offers no details about rights or payment. However, a writer who recently received a publication offer sent me a copy of the Jerrick Ventures contract (Jerrick Ventures owns several other webzines in addition to Omni Reboot)--and it includes a major rights grab.

Here's the relevant language (my bolding):
WHEREAS, by this Agreement, Author desires to assign to Company exclusive ownership of all the rights in the Approved Entries, including the copyright herein....

Section 3. Assignment. Author does hereby irrevocably assign to Company and its successors all right, title, and interest throughout the world, in and to the Approved Entries, including without limitation, any copyrights and other proprietary rights in and to the Approved Entries in any media now known or hereinafter developed, and in and to all income, royalties, damages, claims and payments now or hereafter due or payable with respect thereto, and in and to all causes of action, either in law or in equity for past, present, or future infringement of such rights.
The contract defines Approved Entries as entries chosen for publication. So if you publish with Omni Reboot (or other Jerrick Ventures webzines), you must surrender copyright--and this is not a temporary arrangement, as is sometimes the case with copyright transfers. The contract includes no provision for authors to request that their copyrights be returned.

What about money? Some writers might be willing to consider trading copyright ownership for a fat paycheck. The contract doesn't mention rates; all it says is:
Section 2. Payment. Company shall negotiate payment with author on a per assignment basis.
However, the acceptance email received by the writer who shared the contract with me did not mention money at all. Apparently, the writer was expected to sign the contract--thereby giving up copyright--without even knowing what Omni Reboot would pay.

Last December I wrote about The Toast, whose contract included a similar copyright grab. In response to the outpouring of criticism that resulted, The Toast agreed to change its contract to ask for First North American Rights only. Might Omni Reboot do the same--and perhaps, also, be more transparent about payment? Here's hoping.

UPDATE 3/23/15: Someone tweeted a link to this post to Omni Reboot. Here's its response:


Sean Sullivan, Omni Reboot's content manager also contacted me directly, with a similar statement.

However, the contract I saw did not read like a work-for-hire contract. The US Copyright Office  defines work-for-hire as "a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment" or "a work specially ordered or commissioned." The writer submitted through Omni's submission page--so the work was not commissioned--and the contract not only makes no mention of work-for-hire, it is very specific about designating the writer an independent contractor, rather than an employee:
Section 7. Relationship. Nothing contained in this Agreement shall be construed as creating a joint venture, partnership, agency, or employment relationship between Author and Company....Author shall at all times be an independent contractor (and not an employee or agent of the Company)
I've requested that Mr. Sullivan clarify if I'm misreading any of this, and also, if this was the wrong contract, that he share the correct one with me. I'll update this post when I hear back.

UPDATE 3/30/14: As of today, Sean Sullivan has not responded to my request, nor shared the "correct" contract. In the meantime, I've heard from another writer who was offered the "incorrect" contract--which shows, if nothing else, that this is not an isolated incident.

March 10, 2015

Manuscript Pitch Websites: Do Literary Agents Use Them?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last week, a writer contacted me to ask about WriterPitch.com,"a website that blends the worlds of literary agents and writers under one roof."

How?
For Writers:
You’ll have the ability to have your pitch/pitches read by hundreds of literary agents. With the click of a button an agent can request your manuscript and instantly an email will be sent to you as well as a notice to your homepage....

For Agents:

As an agent you’ll have the ability to search through pitches by specific genres. With the click of a button a request of materials will be sent to any pitch you like, this request letter will be completely customized by you as a field in your personal profile.
The question the writer wanted to ask me was whether WriterPitch's Terms and Conditions posed a problem, specifically the User Content clause:
You grant to WriterPitch.com a worldwide, irrevocable, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to use, reproduce, adapt, publish, translate and distribute your user content in any existing or future media. You also grant to WriterPitch.com the right to sub-license these rights, and the right to bring an action for infringement of these rights.
I told her that this language was not ideal--it'd be preferable if the license were limited to operation of the service--but that it's also very common. You'll find similar language on just about any website that accepts user content. It's not intended to enable the site to rip off users' intellectual property, but to allow the site to operate online.

Such language is a concern, and if you're going to participate in a website whose Terms include it, you need to understand it and its implications. With WriterPitch, however, there's a much more pressing question.

Will agents use it?

Manuscript pitch websites, a.k.a. manuscript display sites or electronic slushpiles, often present themselves as new! Revolutionary! Disruptive! Truth is, they've been around for as long as I've been doing Writer Beware (more than 15 years now--gulp).

First appearing in the late 1990s, they were billed as writers' Great New Hope for getting around the antiquated system of gatekeepers. Problem was, agents didn't take to them. By the turn of the century, most were defunct. The earliest and biggest, Authorlink, survives only as a publishing service.

Over the years, many iterations of the same idea have surfaced. I've written about some of them here (Agent Inbox, AuthorForSale, Publishers Desk, Agent Artery). Other examples (and looking through my list, I had trouble finding ones that were still alive): The Author Hub, First 3 Chapters, TV Writers Vault, Inkubate.

All these sites are selling a dream: of access, of a shortcut, of a magic ticket that will somehow transform the world of publishing from a buyer's market, where agents pick and choose, into a sellers' market, where agents come to you.

But this was a fantasy in 1998, and it's a fantasy now. I have never seen a pitch site that is able to show evidence that reputable agents regularly use it. Agent Inbox, for instance, which boasts a large roster of agents and has been around since 2009, cites just one success story. Others cite none at all.

Unconvinced? I reached out on Twitter to ask agents whether they would use a website like WriterPitch.


The response was unanimous: No. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post for screenshots of agents' tweets). Some feel it's extra work they don't have time for--they're already awash in queries, why go looking for more? Others have no interest in a website full of pitches unvetted for quality. Still others point out that just as writers are looking for agents who get them, agents are looking for writers who want them. They prefer writers who target them specifically, rather than tossing a pitch out into the world for anyone passing by.

Another concern: even if pitch websites (or pitch events--#pitmad or #tenqueries, for instance) draw reputable agents, they may also draw inexperienced or questionable ones. There are some excellent names on WriterPitch's tiny list of member agents, but there are also some with iffy track records, or from fledgeling agencies that haven't yet made any sales. An agent contact you receive as a result of a pitch site listing may not be the kind of contact you're really looking for.

WriterPitch founder Samatha Fountaina says that WriterPitch aims to become more than just an author-agent matching service. "It's all about helping each other," she told me in email, "and giving writers a place to concentrate their web presence with a personal writers profile, their pitches, and blog posts about writing. Writers can even see how many page views their blog posts or pitches have received. This site is brand new and is evolving and that's in part because of the amazing writers that are part of WriterPitch. We hope to grow into something that writers look to."

Time will tell. In the meantime, unlike some other pitch sites, WriterPitch appears to be free. So there's probably no harm in using it. But if you do, don't pin all your hopes of finding an agent on it--and definitely don't stop querying the old-fashioned way.

EDITED 3/12/15 TO ADD: Writers take note: WriterPitch's Terms currently don't include any provisions for terminating your account and removing your material. Samantha has informed me that these will be added soon.















March 6, 2015

Update: Lawsuit Against Author Solutions Inc.

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Reported in Publishers Lunch last week (but apparently nowhere else): the lawsuit against Author Solutions launched in 2013 has completed the discovery stage, and has filed for class certification. 
A February 26 filing in New York's Southern District Court by Kelvin James, Jodi Foster, and Mary Simmons (added to the suit after Terry Hardy dropped out in the fall of 2013) asks Judge Denise Cote for certification of the class, covering 170,000 or more authors "who, during the period 2007 through the present, purchased a publishing package or service from Author Solutions."

The plaintiffs say their lawsuit is "a case about a publishing company that makes money from authors, not for them." They allege again that ASI "operates more like a telemarketing company, not a publisher, that employs a large, commissioned sales force to sell books and services to its target audience: the Authors themselves, not the general public." The filing quotes an Author Solutions executive saying in a deposition that the company "has no idea whether the services help authors sell books," which the plaintiffs call "struthious" and a pretense.

The plaintiffs believe the "evidence common to all class members will prove that Author Solutions deceptively sold Publishing Packages and other Services by making false, untrue, or misleading statements, and by concealing critical information from the Plaintiffs and Class" -- namely that its "consultants" are in fact telemarketers who do not need to have experience in publishing matters; that it lies about being "invested in Authors' success"; that its "Rising Star" program with Barnes & Noble is a fiction; that the company "does not know whether Authors succeed in the retail channel and makes no effort to find out"; and that services "are not reasonably designed to help Authors sell books or to accomplish their stated goal and are effectively worthless."
Memorandum of Law in support of plaintiffs' motion for class certification.

Excerpts from the depositions of plaintiffs and Author Solutions staff. A lengthy document that unpacks a lot of information about ASI's business model and internal operations, and makes for fascinating reading. For instance, if you wondered what the appeal of an ASI-run self-publishing division was for a traditional publishing house, here's how it worked for Thomas Nelson's WestBow Press (from the deposition of Don Seitz):


So the "partner" publisher earns a "royalty", a.k.a. a percentage of the fees authors pay (and ASI's salespeople earn a commission on sales, so they're highly motivated to sell as many services as possible). It would also appear that services like marketing are priced higher for partner publishers, to account for the "cost differential" of the royalty:


Author and ASI critic David Gaughran also offers some analysis, in his recent blog post about Barnes & Noble's partnership with ASI.

Giskan Solotaroff Anderson & Stewart, the firm that's conducting the lawsuit, has an update on the case on its website with a form that ASI authors can fill out.

March 2, 2015

Author Solutions Inc. Losing Market Share As Production Numbers Fall

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

On February 9, while doing research on something else, I noticed that Harlequin's Author Solutions, Inc.-run self-publishing imprint, Dellarte Press, had closed its doors. Dellarte's website is now a placeholder, with a "we're sorry" message.

Some of you may remember the outcry that greeted Dellarte (originally named Harlequin Horizons) when ASI and Harlequin rolled it out in November 2009. (By contrast, the earlier launch of WestBow Press for Thomas Nelson caused barely a ripple). Writers flipped out. A slew of pro writers' groups either issued statements condemning the move or de-listing Harlequin. Ultimately, the bad press forced Harlequin to change the service's name and also to distance itself from Dellarte. Of the several self-pub divisions run by ASI for traditional publishers, Dellarte was the only one that didn't prominently tout the connection with its parent publisher.

Why such an abrupt, unannounced closure for Dellarte? Harlequin hasn't talked, and neither has ASI. But maybe it was because Dellarte did almost no business.

Mick Rooney, writing about the closure in The Independent Publishing Magazine, discovered that over the past 5 years, Dellarte published just 16 titles. This is a shockingly small number, and understandably, some people were skeptical, including Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader*. However, it's been confirmed for me by an independent source (and also by the report I discuss below).

The question that immediately occurred to me: is Dellarte an exception? Or are other ASI imprints also doing tiny business?

The answer is "not really." A report by Bowker, Self-Publishing in the United States, 2008-2013, includes a special section on total print and ebook ISBN output at ASI**, which indicates that production at most ASI imprints is in the four-figure range. However, only Xlibris and AuthorHouse crack five figures. And the statistics show something even more interesting: production at ASI is in decline.


There's an up-and-down pattern for individual imprints, but overall, ASI production increased steadily between 2008 and 2011, when output hit a high of 52,648. (Though compare that to CreateSpace's 2011 ISBN output of 58,862.)

In 2012, things started to slip. Numbers rose at Trafford, WestBow, and Palibrio, but fell at other imprints (Xlibris and AuthorHouse by around 3,000 ISBNs each); as a result, overall output declined to 49,885. (For the same period, CreateSpace output more than doubled, to 131,460.)

The slide accelerated in 2013. With the exception of Balboa Press and Partridge India (which Bowker only started tracking that year), every single ASI imprint lost ground. Total output fell to 44,574, a decrease of 5,311. Meanwhile, CreateSpace continued its meteoric rise, leaping to 186,926.

We'll have to wait for 2014 stats to know whether this trend will continue, but my guess is that it will. In part, ASI is reaping the fruits of its poor reputation and the large amount of negative publicity and commentary it has received in the past few years (see, for instance, David Gaughran's The Case Against Author Solutions). Beyond that, though, I think that its business model--print-centric, high-priced, with outsourced operations (much of ASI is based in the Philippines) and an extreme emphasis on upselling--is simply becoming less and less relevant in this age of free-to-cheap digital self-publishing solutions.***

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

* Nate suggested that the number was so small because Dellarte titles have been folded in among other ASI imprints. But ASI has always been very careful to preserve the division between its own operations and the imprints it runs for others, and does everything possible to distance itself (for some of the imprints, you have to look at the Privacy Policy to know that ASI is involved). It has also kept Abbot Press running and separate, even after Writer's Digest bowed out. So I think it's unlikely that it made Dellarte titles disappear.

** Archway Press is not included because Bowker did not start tracking it until 2014. Many thanks to David Gaughran for sharing this report with me.

*** Other companies featured on this blog that lost ground in 2013: PublishAmerica, Dorrance, and, surprisingly, Smashwords (though overall, Smashwords' output is second only to CreateSpace's; the decline could also reflect fewer authors choosing to use ISBNs).
 
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