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.

April 29, 2016

Spam, Spam, Spam Spam: Inkitt and the Grand Novel Contest

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

If you're a writer and have even a smidgeon of online presence, you've probably been emailed or messaged or tweeted by Inkitt, a Berlin-based company that allows writers to post stories and get reader reviews and votes. A prolific spammer, Inkitt also conducts a lot of contests with titles like Vendetta Thriller/Adventure Contest, along with fanfic contests like Star Wars Sci-Fi Writing Contest  (does George Lucas know?). Winning gets you badges on your profile page, and, occasionally, publication.

Tales of Inkitt spam can be seen here or here or here (I've gotten my share, as well). Vote-shilling by contest participants won a temporary ban on Inkitt posts on Reddit a few months ago.

Most recently, Inkitt launched its Grand Novel Contest (for which, no surprise, it is energetically spamming on Twitter):
Win a publishing offer from Inkitt! No submission fees!

Submit your finished novel, 40,000 words or more – no fan fiction, no other limitations on genre! It’s time for you to bring your manuscript into the light and show it off to the world. We are looking for tomorrow's best-sellers!
So why would you want to win a book publishing offer from Inkitt? really kind of wouldn't.

Inkitt was co-founded by programmer Ali Albazaz, who was inspired by the success of E.L. James's 50 Shades of Grey, in particular the idea of crowdsourced editing: "Don’t publish in two years when you’re finished. Publish as you go, get feedback from other writers and improve." Albazaz claims he has developed an "intelligent" algorithm that uniquely distinguishes Inkitt from similar sites like Wattpad:
We’ve developed an artificially intelligent algorithm that analyses the behaviour of readers on our website. We measure their engagement and build statistical models to forecast the positioning of a book in the real world market even before it is published.​ Once we have found a potential blockbuster book, the next step is working with publishers to get these stories to print.
(He also claims that "Moby Dick was refused [by publishers] because it had ‘dick’ in the title," so take that as you will.)

Inkitt details its publishing philosophy here (in a nutshell, goodbye elitist editors and snooty publishers, hello democratization via the "objective" opinion of readers and Inkitt's magic algorithm). If that floats your boat, you may also be impressed by Inkitt's four-stage publishing process:
Step 1: We design your cover and edit your manuscript.

Step 2: We pitch your book to A-list publishers (e.g. Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, MacMillan and HarperCollins), and negotiate the best terms for licensing.

Step 3: If the publishers don’t pick your book, we publish you and run a marketing campaign to sell as many books as possible. If we can’t sell more than 1000 books within 12 months then you can get all your rights back.

Step 4: But if your book sells well, we go back to the A-list publishers, exhibit your success and ask them if they want to print your book.
If you know anything about publishing, you know how well this is likely to work. Melville House sales manager Chad Felix, who has also blogged about Inkitt, has it right:
We’ve seen it again and again: non-expert or reformed expert approaches industry with ideas about how to make money (Inkitt creators Ali Albazaz and Linda Gavin have backgrounds in sales and corporate design, respectively), non-expert builds algorithm, non-expert tries to sell newfangled, guaranteed-to-work thing back to the industry of bad experts.
I could find nothing on Inkitt's website to indicate what the terms of its publishing contract might be, although the Grand Novel Contest guidelines indicate that if Inkitt publishes, "the author will receive 50% of Inkitt's net earnings. Apparently Inkitt has already signed and published the first book in the series Sky Riders by Erin Swan, though there's no sign of the book anywhere except on Inkitt.

I think this guy's got the right reaction.

UPDATE: According to this press release, Tor has signed Erin Swan's novel:
Bright Star, the young adult novel by up-and-coming author Erin Swan, was discovered using predictive data with Inkitt’s artificially intelligent algorithms unearthing the highly-addictive book based on an analysis of reading patterns on the platform. The novel is expected to hit bookshelves in summer 2017.
I haven't been able to find any independent confirmation of the deal. Per the Grand Novel Contest guidelines, Inkitt appears to be claiming an agent's 15% commission. On Inkitt, Swan's work appears to be a series, and Bright Star is actually Book 2, so it's not clear to me whether Tor has bought the series or just the one book.

I remain skeptical of Inkitt's "data driven" approach...but congratulations to the author!


I also have to say that this, recycled by Inkitt on its website and in nearly all its PR materials, is one of the most annoying memes ever--
We have built a platform that is cutting out the middleman in the publishing industry: the acquisitions editor. There is a long list of books whose authors faced rejection at the hands of publishers. That list includes everything from Moby Dick to Harry Potter. Why? Because individual editors and literary agents make decisions that are subjective – often based on their gut instinct – and this means they sometimes get it wrong.
--because it's totally self-refuting: all these books did eventually get published.

April 22, 2016

Small Press Storm Warnings: Pegasus Books, Realmwalker Publishing Group, Spectral Press, Tickety Boo Press

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A roundup of publishers about which I've recently received serious complaints (all of them documented).

Pegasus Books

Pegasus Books of California (not to be confused with indie publisher Pegasus Books of New York or UK-based vanity publisher Pegasus Elliott Mackenzie or any of the several bookstores by that name) is the subject of serious complaints by authors.

Complaints include referrals to a paid editing service (Rumpelstiltskin Editorial Services) that's presented as an outside contractor, but is actually owned by Pegasus's publisher, Marcus McGee; poor quality editing/copy editing (one writer reports that editing consisted mostly of "the addition of hundreds of italics, em dashes and commas and correcting a few instances of passive voice"); various fees including fees for cover art (even though Pegasus's website presents the company as "a medium-sized traditional publisher" that does not charge fees to authors); pressure to buy finished books (authors are told that marketing is dependent on how many copies they purchase); missed pub dates; broken marketing promises; and unpaid royalties. Pegasus also offers a contract that's substantially based on the old PublishAmerica contract.

Here's one former Pegasus author's account of his terrible experience. Also, for your amusement, check out Pegasus's convoluted screed on why the bad old days "when savvy literary agents 'gifted' respected book reviewers with box seats at the Met and exotic family vacations in exchange for consideration and favorable quotes in newspapers and magazines" are gone, and it's fine for publishers to push authors into paying for editing.

Several Pegasus authors are banding together to try and bring suit against the company for fraud, despite the presence in the Pegasus contract of an arbitration clause. In the meantime...beware.

Realmwalker Publishing Group

In mid-2015, shortly after Realmwalker Publishing Group began publishing books by authors other than its owner, James Drake (who writes under the pen name Lee Aarons), I had a chance to see its contract. I don't often have the opportunity to say that a publishing contract is too author-friendly, but this one was, to the disadvantage of the publisher, with a huge royalty percentage (60% of net), a clause that allowed the author to terminate at will any time after publication, and a four-figure advance--way above average for most small presses.

Amazingly, when I saw another Realmwalker contract a few months later, the company had made things even worse for itself, increasing the author's royalty share to a truly insane 85-95% of net. Even many self-pub platforms don't provide that kind of payment. For added spice, it had created copyright confusion as well--a grant of rights that "exclusively grants, assigns, and otherwise transfers to the Publisher and its licensees, successors, and assigns, all right, title, and interest in and to the Work"--in other words, a copyright transfer--yet, later in the contract, a clause ensuring that copyright notices "in the name of the author" would be included in published books.

After noting all these problems to the author who'd contacted me with questions about the newer contract, I wrote:
All in all, this contract is a recipe for disaster, and I will be surprised if Realmwalker is still in business a year from now. Usually I hear about publishers that greedily try to cheat authors of rights and income, but in this case the publisher is cheating itself. In the long run, though, that works out just as badly for authors.
I mention all of this just to highlight the bizarre mixture of cluelessness and (I believe) genuine good intentions behind Realmwalker--a mixture I see all too often in the small press world, and that all too often leads to doom. I don't take any pleasure in being right.

In December 2015, James Drake posted a rambling YouTube apologia (to which I'm not linking, to spare Drake embarrassment beyond this blog post) for the ongoing logistical and financial problems at the company. When, on March 14, Drake announced the formation and development of six new imprints, authors might have hoped things were getting better--but this apparent sign of health was misleading, because by late March Drake had begun to discuss dissolving the company.

Realmwalker issued its last book on April 5. On his blog, author James Minty discusses the confusion, snafus, and excuses that accompanied release. Other Realmwalker authors report similar experiences, as well as royalty money owing. At least Drake seems to be doing the proper thing and reverting rights--cold comfort to authors who believed their books would be carefully published. Likely authors who contributed stories to Realmwalker's anthology, The Legacy, are similarly high and dry.

As of this writing, there's nothing on Realmwalker's website to indicate that it's out of business, and the webpage for the anthology is still calling for submissions. Writers be warned.

Spectral Press / Tickety Boo Press

I haven't received direct complaints about UK-based Spectral Press, but several Writer Beware readers alerted me to this long, documented blog post from author Simon Bestwick, which describes substantial, long-standing problems with the company. (Several other authors have also blogged about the difficulties at Spectral.)

Apparently, "it has emerged that Spectral is in debt to the tune of between £8,000 - £10,000 GBP. A good part of this consists of monies owed to their authors; in addition to this, many customers had paid for orders that had still not been received." The personal problems of Spectral's owner appear to have substantially contributed to Spectral's decline.

As an attempted fix to the troubles, it was announced in early January that Spectral would be taken over by a friend of Spectral's owner, Gary Compton of Tickety Boo Press. Just one problem:
Meanwhile, this article about Gary Compton had been brought to light [revealing that Compton, whose day job is as a designer/contractor, was the subject of a number of complaints of non-performance]. As was this link, which reveals he actually went bankrupt in 2015. And this link, according to which [Tickety Boo Press] has neither assets nor turnover.
The Tickety Boo info has been confirmed to me in private email; I've also seen a Tickety Boo contract, which includes some iffy provisions. Apparently, Compton has responded to authors' questions and concerns with anger, insults, and social media blocks.

What a sad fate for a once-respected publisher.
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