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

January 14, 2022

Pink Sand Press: What Can Happen When Your Agent Decides to Become Your Publisher


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Last week, several people drew my attention to this article in the Des Moines Register. "Iowa Romance Writer Sues Over Efforts to Have Ghostwriter Take Over Series." 


If your "conflict of interest" radar is screaming right now, it should be. 

Clark's complaint (which you can see here) accuses Grishman et al. of breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and fraudulent concealment, and alleges a variety of malfeasance, including concealing the family connection, and invoking an allegedly non-existent contract clause to justify buying out the final two books in an uncompleted series and hiring a ghostwriter to write them. Clark is seeking to terminate both her RedRock Literary and Pink Sand Press contracts, and to receive an award of "lost profits, damages, costs, and attorney's fees based on Pink Sand's breach". 

As of this writing, Grishman hasn't filed a response to the lawsuit, but he did have this to say to a local reporter:

I will have more to say about the complaint. But first...

SOME BACKGROUND

Marci Clark wears many hats. In addition to being the author of multiple novels under several pen names, including Marci Bolden, she has worked as a freelance writer and as an editor for several small publishers, including Lyrical Press. She's also the owner of Nerdy Kat Book Services, which provides design, consulting, editing, and other services for authors. According to her bio, she has an MS in publishing (keep that in mind as you read on).

David Grishman is a commercial loan officer at Bank of New England and serves on the Select Board of Swampscott, MA, where he resides. He also served for several years as CEO of Waterhouse Press, a publisher founded by successful self-published author Meredith Wild (according to this 2016 New York Times article on the publisher's founding, Grishman is Wild's brother-in-law). Grishman brokered some pretty big book deals at Waterhouse, but sometime between August 20 and September 30 of 2018, he vanished from the company website.

Grishman seems to have set up RedRock Literary* in fairly short order following his departure from Waterhouse: its domain was registered on the last day of October 2018, quickly followed by two Massachusetts business registrations: RedRock Literary Inc., filed in November 2018, and a conversion to RedRock Literary LLC, filed in December 2018. (As pointed out by IP attorney Marc Whipple in a lengthy analysis of Clark's complaint, the conversion to RedRock Literary LLC happened just days after Clark signed an agency contract with RedRock Literary Inc.--which contract doesn't seem to have been amended to acknowledge the change. This, according to Whipple, is "extremely unusual".)  

Beyond the registrations, the lawsuit, and a couple of photos accompanying a trademark application, there's no evidence of RedRock's existence: no website, no social media, no reports of sales. 


Pink Sand Press is somewhat more corporeal, with a website and a Facebook page. That's not to say it's a healthy company. For one thing, it is no longer a functioning corporation: it was involuntarily dissolved on June 30 of this year by order of the MA Secretary of State (Clark's lawsuit has been amended to acknowledge this). Again according to Whipple, that usually happens when a corporation fails to file reports on time.

Apart from the books it has published for Clark, Pink Sand has virtually no track record as a publisher. A search on Amazon turns up two other authors and five other titles--but the status of those titles is unclear. They are nowhere to be seen on the Pink Sand website, they don't appear ever to have been promoted--or even mentioned--on Pink Sand's Facebook page, and four of them--by Jeanne De Vita, writing both as herself and under the pen name Callie Chase-- have either been taken out of print or are listed as out of stock or unavailable everywhere but on Amazon. (Interesting side note: De Vita is or was an editor at Waterhouse Press.)

THE CONTRACTS

Both of the contracts Clark signed--the RedRock agency contract and the Pink Sand publishing contract --are attached to her original complaint

The agency contract looks reasonably standard to me, though it imposes a three-year term that the author can terminate only in the event of breach by the agent--not ideal. It also has an arbitration clause, which could complicate things for Clark's legal effort to be released.

The publishing contract, which covers a whopping 28 titles, is another story. It includes some really terrible clauses, particularly in regard to payment. 

For instance, here are the royalty rates for hardcover publication:
This is seriously nonstandard. Mass market paperback royalties are also substandard, at 5% of wholesale. 

Of course, both of these provisions are moot, since Clause 4(a) of the contract stipulates publication only of "an e-book and trade paperback edition"--but there are big problems with royalties for those formats as well. Ebooks are paid at just 15% of net (even the big publishers typically pay 25% of net, and most small presses pay considerably more). As for trade paper royalties, there is no mention of them in the contract. At all. (!!!)

Subsidiary rights payments too are hugely, one might almost say rapaciously, substandard, with the publisher keeping 85% and the author getting just 15%. These include foreign language, book club, and numerous other rights that are typically allocated at least 50/50 between author and publisher.  

Other lowlights: an overly lengthy grant term (10 years); no advances for certain of the many backlist titles acquired; a non-competition clause that bars Clark not just from publishing competing works, but from publishing anything until the terms of the contract have been completed; an agency clause that empowers RedRock to increase its commission for subagented rights sales beyond the commission rates stipulated in the agency contract; and a clause that empowers Pink Sand to retain rights for five years to a delivered revision it declines to publish, unless the author can find another publisher willing to hand all the author's earnings over to Pink Sand until advances have been repaid. (Good luck with that.)

It's hard for me to imagine any reputable publisher offering a contract like this, or any reputable literary agent advising a client to sign it. I see some pretty atrocious contracts from inexperienced publishers who don't know any better, but Grishman is not inexperienced. Waterhouse Press is a successful house, and he worked there for years. 

Make of that what you will. Make what you will, also, of the timelines involved. David Grishman incorporated RedRock Literary (for the first time) on November 13. Less than three weeks later, on December 2, he signed Clark as an agency client. Six weeks after that, on January 15, Steven Grishman incorporated Pink Sand Press. Clark's publishing agreement was signed just eight days later, on January 23. 

The whole thing has the feeling of a rush to pin something down.

THE COMPLAINT

Here are Clark's principal allegations, with my comments. (I'm not a lawyer, but I have Thoughts.)

Allegation 1. It was not revealed to Clark that Pink Sand was owned by Grishman's father until after she signed the contract. Instead, she alleges that she was told that the company was "a startup company that would be owned by Grishman and Matthew Bernard, Grishman's friend." 

It's possible to imagine a situation in which the alleged statement by Grishman was not misrepresentation--at least, at the time it was made. Suppose, for instance, that the described joint ownership really was the plan in December, when Clark signed the agency contract--but later those plans fell through and Grishman turned to Dad instead.

Even in this hypothetical, though, everything would have changed on January 15, when Pink Sand's business registration was filed in Steven's name. In terms of conflict of interest, there's not a lot of difference between your agent owning your publisher, and his father owning your publisher while your agent just works there--but at a minimum, Clark should have been informed. It sure seems like there was ample time for that to happen before January 23, when Clark signed the Pink Sand contract. 

Allegation 2. Pink Sand did not file copyright "applications" (presumably what's meant here is registrations) for any of Clark's works, as the publishing agreement required it to do.

I checked the public copyright catalog, and of the nineteen Marci Bolden books published by Pink Sand, sixteen are indeed registered. 


I can't see any pattern that would explain the three that aren't registered, although they are the only standalone titles. They're also the only titles available solely as ebooks (the rest are available in a variety of formats). Weird.

Allegation 3. In March 2020, after a fourth novel in one of Clark's series was delayed by extensive developmental editing, Clark alleges that Grishman informed her that the publisher would be buying out the final two volumes in an uncompleted series and hiring a ghostwriter to create them, claiming that "she had no choice because of a clause in the Publishing Agreement that allowed Pink Sand to use a ghostwriter to finish the series that would be published under Clark's name." 

Clark alleges that there is no such clause. I agree. I've read the contract several times, and I can find no wording that's even remotely similar to what Clark alleges Grishman told her. If this allegation is true, it would constitute some serious gaslighting.

Allegation 4. In February 2021, Clark and Pink Sand executed an amendment to the original contract that "expressly changed the Publishing Agreement to only require Clark to submit manuscripts for copy editing, not developmental editing." Clark alleges that Pink Sand breached this when it "insisted on conducting developmental edits before accepting Clark's manuscripts for publication."

Here's the amendment:

This doesn't seem to me to be as unambiguous as the complaint alleges. Yes, "developmental" is crossed out and "copy" is substituted--but only in connection with establishing a delivery date. There is no wording that explicitly excludes developmental (or any other kind) of editing. Maybe the intent was to exclude it, but to me (and again, I'm not a lawyer), the actual wording leaves something of a loophole that could enable Pink Sand to argue that it wasn't in breach: for instance, it could claim that when the works were received for copy editing, it was realized that they needed developmental editing, so Pink Sand went ahead and did that since it wasn't specifically prohibited from doing so.

Allegation 5. In May 2021, Clark and Grishman agreed on a September 24 submission date for an unnamed manuscript. But in August, Clark alleges that she was told her submission was late; and on September 15--at which point, remember, the ms. wasn't actually due yet--Pink Sand informed her that she was in default and her royalties would be withheld "until the parties came to an agreement to end negotiations and terminate the Publishing Agreement." (Clark did not turn in the manuscript.)

The complaint doesn't include any documentation of this claim. But once again, the timelines are interesting. Pink Sand was dissolved as a corporation on June 30. According to Clark's complaint and the Pink Sand contract, September 15--the day she alleges that she was prematurely told she was in default--was also the day royalties were due. 

Hmmmm.

FINAL THOUGHTS

There is much here that it is impossible to know right now. The only documentation provided to address the many allegations in Clark's complaint is the two contracts, and as of this writing, the Grishmans have not yet filed a response to tell their side of the story. 

There are situations in which agents or agencies that double as publishers can avoid major conflicts of interest--primarily by maintaining a wall between the agenting and publishing sides of their business (agency clients are never offered publishing, other than possibly for represented backlist works that are out of print; and publishing clients are never eligible for agenting). There's a whole section on the Literary Agents page of the Writer Beware website that addresses this issue.

Clark's situation, though, seems like a textbook case of unavoided conflict of interest. Even had the Pink Sand contract been perfectly fair, Grishman, as Clark's agent, could not adequately represent Clark's interests when presenting it to her, because as a Pink Sand employee, he was also representing the publisher's interest in having her sign it. This is why the AAR prohibits members from representing both buyer and seller in a single transaction.

Of course, the Pink Sand contract is not fair. One of the things I find most peculiar about the whole mess is that Clark was not a publishing neophyte when she signed it. She'd published several books, worked as an editor for other small presses, and had an MS in publishing from the University of Houston. Wouldn't those terrible royalty clauses--at the very least--have rung some warning bells?

I'm not casting blame. But this is one of the things that makes me think that there's a lot more to the story than is currently apparent.

Stay tuned.

* David Grishman's RedRock Literary Inc should not be confused with Renata Kazprzak's UK-based Red Rock Literary Agency.

January 7, 2022

The Best of Writer Beware: 2021 in Review




Ah, 2021. The year that was supposed to deliver us from the pandemic, and instead delivered...well. You know.

At least one expectation didn't change: scammers gonna scam. Writer Beware was ready. Below are highlights of a busy year of scam hunting, scheme exposing, contract analyzing, and just plain crazy stuff.

IT CAME FROM OVERSEAS

I know I'm kind of a broken record here, because I've written so many posts about them...but the tsunami of publishing/marketing/fake literary agency scams out of the Philippines really is one of the realest and most present dangers for self- and small press-published writers, who are almost exclusively these scammers' target.

This was one of the more elaborate of the Philippines-based scam efforts: the creation of a large roster of fictitious literary agents, complete with fake resumes and/or websites. The "agents" are fronts for referrals to paid services.

Scammers are increasingly using the names of top publishers and their staffs to make false claims and offers. Here's one especially brazen effort: the supposedly Big 5 publisher-sponsored sale of "tickets" that buy a "letter of endorsement" by "commissioned literary agents". Needless to say, this is not how publishing works.

2020 was all about scammers impersonating reputable literary agents. 2021 ushered in a wave of film studio and production company impersonations. Major studios like Universal, smaller companies like Roth/Kirshenbaum and Bluegrass Films, and producers like Todd Phillips and David Ellison were all impersonated by scammers looking to trick writers into paying thousands of dollars for a screenplay.

This triple-barreled scammer has not just impersonated major publishers, but falsely claimed an alliance with the Authors Guild...which did not take that lie lying down. The person claiming to be the CEO of these ventures is unusually visible and flamboyant on social media (most of the people connected with Philippines-based scams go to great lengths to hide their identities).

BUT WAIT...THERE'S MORE!

From fake agent photos and bios, to unverifiable details about its background, to zero internet presence beyond a hasty website, this fee-charging agency was much less than it appeared. There are useful tips here for vetting an agency by analyzing its website.

A fake conference promises a hefty appearance fee--but first you've got to send money for "equipment". And Goodreads trolls are targeting writers with demands for money to head off fake one-star reviews.

A pair of dodgy new ventures from two individuals whose previous businesses screwed writers over in a major way.

CONTRACT MATTERS

Although not common, this is something to watch for, especially in small press contracts. While there aren't any definitive legal rulings to disallow such claims, there aren't any to support them either--and, just as important, there's no obvious benefit for publishers in refusing to allow writers to re-publish the final edited version of a book whose rights they've reverted.

The number of reading/writing apps and platforms like Wattpad, Webnovel, and Radish has exploded over the past couple of years, and many are aggressively soliciting for content. Unfortunately, contracts can be seriously author-unfriendly. The contract offered by ByteDance's Fizzo is no exception.

Another reading/writing app, another terrible contract that, among other things, imposes punitive word count requirements.

Scribd is engaging in a major push to acquire audiobook and ebook rights for already-published books. The contract it's offering has some issues that require careful consideration, including what could be very limited compensation, depending on how popular your book turns out to be.

ADVICE YOU CAN USE

Overly sweeping--and unnecessary--rights grants are a common feature of contest rules. One contest's inclusion of such language, why the language is problematic--and how it was changed for the better.

These out-of-the-blue offers are almost always from fraudulent companies that want to get you in the door so they can pressure you to buy additional, costly "services." Many simply stop responding once writers get suspicious and start asking questions, or shut down without notice when complaints start accumulating...leaving authors high and dry.

SAVE YOUR MONEY

In the few countries with an official registration process, there's no legal substitute. Nevertheless, there are many fake and exploitative "registration" services that claim to offer a shortcut or an alternative. Here's one that apparently got so many credit card chargebacks from unhappy writers that it adopted an...unusual response.

Beware of bookstores calling out of the blue to sell you shelf space. They may be owned by a predatory publishing service that wants to sell you other stuff as well (of course, they won't tell you that).

Vanity publishing as education? New Degree Press is the publishing arm of a university course in which students are coached to produce a book. NDP presents as a publisher, but it functions like an assisted self-publishing service. Fees are crowdfunded but they're hefty, and students often wind up out of pocket.

PUBLISHERS IN--OR GIVING--TROUBLE

Author complaints are a familiar litany: publication delays, late or missing royalty statements and payments, unpaid staff, poor editing and production. And, in one case, a book purchase requirement that's not revealed on the company website.

Multiple author complaints include missing and inaccurate royalty statements (in some cases going back years), missing royalty payments (even where there were thousands of sales), failure to respond to reversion requests on contract expiration, and more. As sometimes happens, these were problems of very long standing that suddenly acquired critical mass.

Late royalty payments, missed editing and other deadlines, poor communication, books ordered and never received, and major gaslighting by the company's owner. City Limits suffered a mass staff exodus shortly after I published this post, and closed its doors for good a few weeks later--leaving writers and staff unpaid.

All three of these publishers are the subject of author complaints of non-payment, and all three illustrate the risks of signing with publishers that are basically one-person operations: a single personal problem, family illness, or other mishap can derail the entire operation.

BAD MOUSE

Disney has acquired many publishers and imprints over the years, along with their intellectual property. In many cases, however, Disney is taking the position that, while they've acquired these publishers' contracts, they have not acquired the obligations the contracts stipulate...such as paying royalties and providing royalty statements.

In 2021, SFWA and other professional writers' organizations established the #DisneyMustPay Joint Task Force to advocate for affected authors. My blog post takes a look at the situation as of September 2021: some progress, but much work still to do.


AND FINALLY, A SALUTE TO THE CRAZY

When was the last time you got a snail mail get-rich-quick solicitation? This one from Monica Main promises the opportunity to be a co-writer with a best-selling author in a "James Patterson kind of writing 'empire'"...you just have to watch a bunch of videos and sign an NDA! What I didn't expect as I looked into this scheme: the best-selling author is real. Monica Main is a convicted felon who was prosecuted by the Feds for commodity trading fraud. And the trademark applications are...interesting.

Come for the lawsuit threats, stay for the insults. My encounter with highly volatile editor/author coach Christina Kaye, who is the focus of multiple client and staff complaints. She clearly didn't expect that I'd publish the threat- and expletive-laden emails she sent in an effort to get me to back off. Oops.

December 13, 2021

Online Copyright Registration Services: Writer Beware




In 2014, I wrote a post about Copyright Registration Online, one of many faux and exploitative copyright registration "services" that cater to writers' anxiety about theft and plagiarism, particularly of unpublished work, by promising to register US copyright or to provide some sort of copyright verification service.

Naturally, there are fees for these services. At the time I wrote the post, Copyright Registration Online was charging $135--which was a ripoff, on two fronts. You can register copyright yourself online at the US Copyright Office for only $45. Just as important: there's absolutely no need to register copyright for unpublished work

Some registration services are basically pass-throughs: they do submit registration applications to the US Copyright Office, just at a seriously inflated cost. Others provide their own "registration" documentation or certificates, often based on some sort of timestamp. These are completely worthless, not just because they could easily be faked and are therefore unlikely to stand up in court, but because there is no legal substitute for registration with the US Copyright Office (in the United States, you must previously have registered your copyright in order to file an infringement action). Just like so-called poor man's copyright, any "registration" received from a source other than the Copyright Office has zero legal validity. 

So why am I dredging up old blog posts? Because Copyright Registration Online is still around, and it has seriously upped the disinformation factor.

Now also calling itself Copyright Registry or Copyright Registry Online, it's got a spiffy new web domain, website, and eagle-and-flag logo. Services are basically the same; prices are a little higher, but not much: "registration" for a single author with a single work will set you back $144. 

Copyright Registration Online has also moved beyond the comment spam that brought it to my attention the first time. If you Google "register copyright", its ad comes up ahead of the link to the US Copyright Office:


This no doubt drives a lot of traffic Copyright Registration Online's way, with many writers probably never realizing they aren't dealing with an official branch of the US government, or realizing too late, despite this easily-missable small print on the home page: 


Complaints at the BBB--which currently gives the company an F rating--further illustrate this point.

It's pretty clear that Copyright Registration Online has had plenty of experience with dissatisfied customers--so much so that there's an entire clause in its Terms and Conditions devoted to credit card chargebacks, with (probably unenforceable) financial penalties threatened against anyone who dares to initiate one:

Note also the final sentence, which ups the scare factor: "Until these fees are paid in full, Copyright Registry Online will have complete ownership and control of users [sic] copyright registration." It's unclear what that means, since only a copyright owner can own a registration made in their name. Is the company referring to the registration application? Is it threatening to hold up the registration process or to withhold the eventual certificate from the Copyright Office? Again, not clear, and it's unlikely it could actually do anything at all. But scary language, especially to an inexperienced author.

How many people read Terms and Conditions, though? So the company includes an even more outlandish threat in its email footers:


Bad author, no can haz chargeback, all your copyright belong to us! 

Of course, this is a complete, brazen lie. First of all, this supposed loss of ownership is not so stated in the Terms and Conditions, which refer only (however nonsensically) to the registration

Second and more important, this is not the way copyright works. You can't lose ownership of your work unless you explicitly agree to surrender your copyright, and there is nothing in Copyright Registration Online's application process, or its Terms and Conditions, to effectuate that. 

Pure and simple, this is a scare tactic designed to discourage writers from filing disputes with their credit card companies once they realize they've been rooked. Not only is it a testament to the sleaziness of Copyright Registration Online--you wouldn't need to work so hard to head off chargebacks if you didn't get a ton of them--it may well be illegal.

There are many similar services out there. I haven't encountered any others that employ such egregiously dishonest tactics. Even so, there are excellent reasons for avoiding ANY service that claims to do or to expedite what the US Copyright Office does--whether because they'll charge you much more than you need to pay, or will furnish you with documents that have no legal value. 

Also, don't forget: no matter what you may have heard, if your work is unpublished and you're still at the query stage, there's no need to register at all. By law, you own copyright from the moment you write down the words. Registration is an extra step that gives you the right to pursue an infringement claim in US court (other countries have no such requirement for filing a claim). But theft and plagiarism are vanishingly unlikely at the query stage. Reputable agents and editors won't risk their reputations by stealing; disreputable ones aren't interested in your work, only in your money. Infringement only becomes a danger when your work is exposed to a wide audience: in other words, published. 

There's comprehensive information on copyright--including the many myths associated with it--on the Copyright page of the Writer Beware website.

December 3, 2021

A Pay to Play Bookstore Scheme: The Reading Glass Books




I've recently gotten several reports of phone solicitations from a New Jersey-based bookstore called The Reading Glass Books.

Why would a bookstore be calling authors out of the blue? Well in this case, to sell shelf space: $350 for six months. Authors can direct the store to sell the books at whatever price they like, and will get "100% of the royalties" (which of course makes no sense, since direct sales proceeds are not royalties). And if you're thinking that the store will order the books...no, no, no, don't be silly. Authors must provide their own copies.

Paid shelf space for self-published authors isn't a new idea. Here's one entrepreneur who set up a bookstore entirely on that model (the store closed in 2019). And a few years ago there was some media coverage of independent bookstores that were renting shelf space to self-pubbed and small press writers--in some cases for a good deal more than $350.

Whatever you may think of paying for shelf space, these were all real brick-and-mortar stores in the business of selling books to the public--not exploitative schemes aimed primarily at extracting money from writers. Based on its solicitation phone calls, sketchy website, and array of other paid services, my guess was that The Reading Glass Books fell into the latter category. I wanted to be sure, though, so I did some research. 

Reading Glass claims a physical address--7 Wrightstown Cookstown Road (aka County Road 616) in Cookstown, New Jersey. To my surprise, there actually is a storefront. It's located in a small strip mall on a relatively empty stretch of road. Here's an image,, courtesy of Google (note the prime location, between Air Transport International and Domino's Pizza): 


You can just see that books are displayed in the window. 

The mall's roadside location is not exactly conducive to the foot traffic that real bookstores count on--though I guess it's possible that Reading Glass gets some walk-ins from next-door Domino's, or from the tattoo and barber shops that are also in this mall. However, those well-shaved and freshly inked book lovers won't find the store's inside much more prepossessing than its outside. Interior photos (a number of which are present on Reading Glass's Facebook page and Google listing) show a small space with sparsely populated shelves. Here we are in December 2020:


And here's a view from November 2021--inventory is still pretty puny, but it does look like the phone solicitations are having an impact:


So okay, there really is a store. It's not in a great location, it doesn't look like it has a lot of stock, and there are no customers in any of the shots. I'm guessing that authors are lucky if they realize sales in the single digits. Even so, there's enough of a there there to suggest that Reading Glass isn't merely a $350 figment. Could it be that it isn't just a take-money-from-writers scheme? Could it be some entrepreneurial individual's misguided notion of how to "help" indie authors?

Nope.

See the Book of the Month banner? See the company name at the top?


That's Writers' Branding, a self-described "full-service self-publishing company" that sells a large range of costly Author Solutions-style publishing packages and marketing services. Most of the marketing is junk (video trailers, press releases, social media and print advertising, paid book reviews, vanity radio and TV, etc.), and there are some huge markups: for instance, fee-charging review outfit Pacific Book Reviews offers a discounted rate of $225 for its standard review service to Writers' Branding authors, but Writers' Branding re-sells the same service on its own website, with some negligible add-ons, for $1,599. 

There's also a companion of sorts to the bookstore: The Reading Glass magazine, one of those faux publications that is never circulated to the public and consists primarily of author advertising and paid interviews interspersed with badly-written articles. Authors can spend anywhere from $399 for a quarter page ad to $3,999 for the whole front cover.

In other words, The Reading Glass Books is just another junk marketing offering by a "self-publishing" company firmly in the Author Solutions mold. Interestingly, the shelf space deal that's being pitched to authors in phone calls for $350 costs $549 if bought from the Writers' Branding website. And if you want to be the Book of the Month advertised on the banner in the photo above? It'll set you back $1,649

Also worth noting: according to reports I've received, as well as others online, the phone solicitors for The Reading Glass Books don't mention Writers' Branding at all. Which makes sense, if the calls are an attempt by Writers' Branding to expand its bookstore "service" beyond its own authors.

Writers' Branding is of relatively recent origin, with a web domain registered in December 2019. It's got a business registration in New Jersey, but like so many companies of this type, it's also registered in the Philippines

Writer Beware has gotten a number of reports of phone and email solicitations by Writers' Branding, and there are more reports and complaints online: PissedConsumer.com has a few (including phone harassment), there are a couple at the BBB (both closed, and the details aren't shown). Bizapedia, not normally known for garnering consumer reviews, shows three complaints, all involving Reading Glass Books solicitations. 

November 19, 2021

Small Press Storm Warnings: Hurn Publications, Dreaming Big Publications, Azure Spider Publications


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

HURN PUBLICATIONS

I first heard of Hurn Publications (that's a link to an archived version; the Hurn website is no longer online) not because of author complaints, but because of a contact from the company's founder, Meaghan Hurn.

Shortly after I published this post about contract cancellations and other troubles at vanity publisher Waldorf Publishing, Meaghan emailed me to say that she had a list of publishers who were willing to "help" the cancelled authors by printing new editions of their books. Regardless of the publisher, referring authors isn't something I'd ever do; Writer Beware is scrupulous about avoiding conflict of interest, and we never offer publisher (or agent) recommendations or referrals. We also promise confidentiality, and don't pass on names to third parties.

Meghan also asked me to take a look at Hurn and "see where we might be able to improve from your unique viewpoint." I give advice to writers for free, but to publishers, not so much. Nevertheless, I took a look. And I saw some warning signs. Meaghan Hurn had no apparent professional publishing or writing experience prior to founding the publisher. The company was less than a year old (there's a really high failure rate among new small publishers; it's best to wait until they've been publishing books for at least a year, and preferably longer, before approaching them); it described itself as a "collaborative" publisher (often a euphemism for pay-to-play; Hurn emphatically denied that authors had to pay for anything, but some publishers make that claim and still have a book purchase requirement); and it claimed trademark status for non-trademarked properties (I checked).

Last but not least, Hurn's contract suffered from multiple personality disorder: it required authors to surrender copyright, yet promised to register copyright in the authors' names; it claimed rights in perpetuity, yet released them after five years; and it pledged to pay royalties quarterly, but also just once a year.

So I honestly wasn't too surprised when, in late October, I began hearing from Hurn authors. They told me that on October 24, after several weeks of silence, Meaghan Hurn abruptly took down the Hurn website and closed her social media accounts. 

The same day, they received this letter, informing them that Hurn was closing immediately due to Meaghan's illness. The letter does dissolve all contracts and revert all rights (a step that many small presses that go suddenly dark neglect to take) and agrees not to enforce "the portion of the contract that requires you to pay to use [your edited manuscript]" (this provision, which Writer Beware considers predatory, did not appear in the early version of Hurn's contract that I saw). But it also seeks to monetize the company's dissolution by offering to let authors buy their cover art for $350.

Especially with publishers that are one-person operations (or one person plus some freelance editors), illness or family troubles or other personal misfortunes can completely derail the business. But Hurn's sudden closure didn't come totally out of the blue. Authors told me that there were trouble signs well before October 24th: books with uncorrected errors, late royalty payments and statements, unfulfilled marketing promises, and poor communication.

As of this writing, Hurn books are still for sale on Amazon, in both print and Kindle editions. It can take some time for retailers to remove listings, and publishers do have the right to continue to sell any print editions they have on hand at the time of closure or contract termination. They should pay royalties on all of those post-closure sales, however. Hopefully Hurn will do so.

Hurn authors, please let me know.

DREAMING BIG PUBLICATIONS

I've been getting complaints about Dreaming Big Publications (not to be confused with the similarly named, and now defunct, Dream Big Publishing) off and on since 2018. These include scheduling delays, unpaid royalties, no sales information, failure to respond to emails, and in one case, publishing an audiobook that the publisher did not have the rights to.

Now, apparently things have gotten worse, to the point that authors are asking to to terminate their contracts. In late August, Dreaming Big posted this in the members-only section of its website:

Compared to some termination fees I've seen, these aren't large--still, it's not a great sign to have enough authors wanting to get out of their contracts that you feel obliged to monetize the process.

Like Hurn, Dreaming Big is basically a one-person operation that has been derailed on occasion by the owner's health issues. But that may not be the only source of Dreaming Big's problems with paying and accounting royalties. Here's the royalties clause of its contract:


That's it. No schedule of payments. No requirement that the publisher provide a royalty statement. Small presses often ignore the terms of their own contracts, so having a royalty schedule and an accounting requirement doesn't mean you'll get them. But not having them definitely increases the chances that you won't.

Something to watch for.

AZURE SPIDER PUBLICATIONS

Another one-person operation--Azure Spider Publications--is the subject of a spate of recent author complaints. These include no royalties, no royalty statments, non-response to emails and messages, and refusal (via non-response) to terminate contracts and remove books from sale despite clear evidence of breach (the said non-payment and non-provision of royalty statements, both of which are required in the contract).

I tweeted a couple of alerts about the situation, which appear to have motivated the publisher to reach out to me.


I'm always at least a little skeptical about health excuses, since I've encountered so many situations in which they turn out to be false. Covid especially provides a convenient rationale: I've seen it used frequently in the past year and a half--sometimes honestly but often otherwise--to justify non-performance. But these tales of misfortune may also be genuine, so they deserve at least the benefit of the doubt.

In this case, though, doubt has run out. The promises made in the email have not been fullfilled--at least for the authors who contacted me, who have still not received royalties, rights reversions, or even a response from Ms. Osborne.

******

Finally, an observation. As I've noted in each case, these publishers are all basically one-person operations, with perhaps some freelancers or part-timers to fill in the gaps. The owner of Dreaming Big, for instance, has admitted that publishing is a sideline: "Publishing is fun and more than a hobby, I suppose, but it's not what pays my bills".

If you're going to put your manuscript into the hands of a publisher--not to mention, sign a contract that binds you to the publisher for years if not the life of your copyright--you really want publishing to be the publisher's primary business--not something done "for fun" or as a hobby or in their spare time evenings and weekends. With the best will in the world, one-person and part-time ventures, which are often without financial reserves and don't have the cushion of regular staff, are super-vulnerable to unexpected outside events--illness, family emergency, personal misfortune, and the like. As seen above, these can lead to mistakes and delays, or even push the company into closure, leaving authors in limbo.

Again, part-time publishers may be entirely well-intentioned, and may have the savvy or drive to keep things running smoothly. But for authors, signing with a publisher that isn't a full-time operation is a risk factor. When you're evaluating whether to accept a contract offer, it's something you need to consider.

November 12, 2021

An Editing Nightmare: Editor and Author Coach Christina Kaye of Write Your Best Book (aka Book Boss Academy)

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

I first heard about editor and author coach Christina Kaye (aka Christina Broaddus) last year, via a writer who later posted this public complaint on Facebook. The allegations: misrepresentation of services (editing by a trainee rather than Christina herself), inadequate performance (the complainant paid for content editing, and got something more like copy editing), and refusal by Christina to either re-do the edit or provide a refund. 

In addition to the allegations, the complainant provided supporting documentation...including Christina's furious emails and lawsuit threats when the complainant refused to back off.


As far as I know, the lawsuit never materialized.

So who is Christina Kaye? Owner of two-year-old editing and coaching service Write Your Best Book, her resume includes a predecessor, Top Shelf Editing, which launched in September 2019 and whose URL is currently set to re-direct to WYBB, as well as stints with Limitless Publishing (publisher of several of her novels) and Dragon Street Press

Other entrepreneurial ventures include Bon Chance Press, which started up in early 2017 and contracted several books before closing that same year without publishing anything; a registered business called Book Boss Boutique, LLC; and an Etsy storefront that sells writing-related planners and gifts. Christina also has a substantial presence on various social media platforms, hosts her own podcast, and has amassed a large following on TikTok.

The WYBB website displays testimonials from satisfied clients (of which there are apparently 300, or maybe it's 150?). And a single bad review, even one as convincingly documented as the Facebook complaint, doesn't necessarily indicate a problem business. Anyone can fly off the handle and say unwise things in response to pressure. Maybe this was an isolated incident? Maybe there was something else that explained Christina's over-the-top response?  

Over the past year, however, several writers who've used Christina's services have contacted me to report similar experiences: editing that didn't fulfill what they were led to expect or the terms of the contracts they signed (such as copy editing presented as content editing, or editing by a trainee); hostile, threatening, insulting, and generally unprofessional responses by Christina to concerns and complaints (not just in email or texts but on social media); and refusal of refund requests, including in one case where services weren't just unsatisfactory, but mostly weren't delivered. 

That writer went public with a video on Facebook, in which she describes paying $2,500 for editing and coaching that Christina subsequently decided she couldn't do; when the writer asked for the money back, Christina refused, claiming the payment was "in the bank" to cover future help the writer might need. The writer filed a dispute with her credit card company, which initiated a chargeback. Christina was not pleased.


(Refunds seem to be a particular issue for Christina's business. Write Your Own Book's editorial contract specifically excludes them--in ALL CAPS:
Like "we don't guarantee that you'll make any sales" clauses in publishing contracts, this suggests not so much a hypothetical situation as an anticipated one. And why would an editorial service anticipate refund requests?)

In the past couple of weeks, I've also heard from WYBB staff members who say they have not been paid (and I've seen documentation to support this). 

These are all serious complaints. What really stands out for me, though, is Christina's communication style, particularly her volcanic reactions to criticism and complaint, or to people she perceives as having disrespected or dismissed her. In addition to the publicly-posted emails and messages above, I've seen many examples shared with me privately by clients, staffers, and people with whom Christina has worked professionally. Several of them told me they're afraid of her. 

Since I promise confidentiality, I can't share any of those examples. But my own exchange of emails with Christina should give you a flavor of what I'm talking about.

The same day I tweeted this...
...I received this:


Hmmm. I responded in my mild mannered reporter guise:


Within minutes, I got this:


Allll righty, then. (Between Facebook and Twitter, I actually have around 43,000 followers...still so sadly short of 100,000 friends, though.) 

Christina did eventually agree to answer my questions. So I sent them off (you can see the exchange that prompted my first sentence at the bottom).


A bit to my surprise, she responded to at least some of what I asked.


(Right after receiving this, I emailed one of the WYBB staff members who contacted me about outstanding invoices. They provided documentation that confirmed that they were still waiting for payment.)

The TikTok Live didn't happen. But a few days later, Christina added three lengthy posts to one of her Facebook pages, in which she claimed to know who was complaining about her ("there are THREE former clients I’m aware of who are 'unhappy' with my services"), accused those people of misleading gullible fools like me with "false information and even doctored documentation", and threatened them, along with anyone who "jumps on that bandwagon", with "pending legal action." All with the greatest love, positivity, mercy, and compassion.

I always do due diligence, so I decided to reach out again.


This did not go over well.

Well, I tried.

Christina has since decided to take a break from social media

If you're thinking of hiring a freelance editor, Writer Beware's Editors page has lots of information, tools, tips, and of course cautions, as well as links to helpful resources. 

UPDATE 11/16/21: As I thought it might, this post has motivated new reports. I haven't obscured the names on these, as they're publicly viewable on Facebook



From Writer Beware's Facebook page



UPDATE 11/17/21: Christina has deleted the three long Facebook posts referred to above. I have screenshots, if anyone wants to see them. 

Christina has also changed her name and handle on TikTok, reincarnating as ED Foster (quick editing tip: add periods to indicate abbreviations, unless you want people to think your name is Ed) and @bookbossacademy. 


She has posted a video, all about how to deal with "enemies".

UPDATE 11/20/21: Christina has changed the name of her Facebook page to Book Boss Academy. The company website still has the old name.

UPDATE 1/5/22: Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi! Subscribers to Christina's email list received this plea last week:


It goes on from there, but the gist is that she MUST get at least ONE new client signed up in the next 48 hours or it's goodbye Book Boss Academy. 


So far, the threat of Book Boss's demise appears to be greatly exaggerated. As far as I know, neither celebration nor sign-off email has been sent, the Book Boss Academy (nee Write Your Best Book) website is still live, and Christina is still busily posting videos on TikTok (now under her own name).

November 5, 2021

Bad Contract Alert: NovelCat


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

How cute is NovelCat's kitty logo? If only its contract were so adorable.

NovelCat is yet another of the reading/writing platforms, mostly based in Singapore and Hong Kong, that have sprung up relatively recently and are aggressively recruiting authors. A few have decent contracts, but many offer truly terrible terms, which I've explored in a couple of previous posts: EMP Entertainment and A&D Entertainment, which appear to have been deputized to recruit for Webnovel (this post includes an assessment of a number of similar companies), and Fictum, a new platform from ByteDance.

The full NovelCat contract can be seen here. It's non-exclusive, and the non-exclusivity doesn't seem to be vitiated by prohibitions within the contract (as with the EMP and A&D contracts, which include several clauses that severely restrict their supposed non-exclusivity). There's also an advance; the amount wasn't stipulated in the contract I saw, but similar platforms pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $1,500.

But...

The grant term is 20 years, auto-renewable for another 20 years if you neglect to "dispute" renewal or if you do dispute it and NovelCat doesn't agree (Clause 9). That's not as bad as the life-of-copyright grants I've seen in other reading/writing platform contracts, but it's still a seriously excessive grant term--especially since options for authors to terminate are very, very limited.

Did I mention that termination options are limited? Per Clause 2.2.4, you can ask NovelCat to remove your work from its platform, but it doesn't have to agree. The only other situation in which you can terminate is if NovelCat defaults on its obligations or otherwise breaches the contract. Even assuming NovelCat still exists in 20 years, that's a long time for your work to be stuck in one place, especially if it's generating little income.

Although the contract is non-exclusive, it makes claim on a large array of subsidiary rights (Clause 2.2), including "movies, TV dramas, online drama series, animations, dramas, games, audiobooks, radio dramas" (soooo much drama!), which NovelCat can "commercialize...in any form, format, language or method, or produce, use, sell, market, import, reproduce and distribute Contractual Works or derivative works." It can also use your title and character names as "trademarks on relevant commodities," and license subrights to third parties, with no obligation to inform you if it does.

For the average author, how likely is it that NovelCat will use or license any of these subrights? In most cases, probably not very (with the possible exception of audiobooks). Still, it's a pretty sweeping authorization, and if you sign a contract where something can happen, you should never assume that it won't happen.

You must grant rights not just for one work, but for all works related to that work in just about any way--even if you haven't written them yet. Here's the relevant clause, from the Definitions section:


This is one of the more greedy rights grabs I've seen.

Speaking of rights, clause 4.1.3 suggests that NovelCat can simply buy you out at an agreed-upon price, and thereafter keep all sales and licensing proceeds.


Royalties are paid monthly...but they are paid on net profit (Clause 4). The royalty percentage sounds high (50% of "distributable income"), but distributable income is defined (in the Definitions section) as "the income after channel charges, promotion fees, claw-back deductions, all costs and any other charges are deducted from sales revenue generated from works". In other words, net profit.

Since you don't know what the deducted costs will actually amount to (the contract includes no requirement that NovelCat disclose them), 50% could be considerably less than it sounds. Additionally, there's nothing to clarify how "sales revenue" is generated. Page reads? Some kind of coin or tip system? Something else? Between that lack of clarity and all the deductions, you really have no idea what you might be paid.

You also will be paid only once you recoup whatever advance you're offered, and will receive payouts only when accumulated royalties exceed $100.

As with some other reading/writing platform contracts I've seen, word count requirements are pretty stiff--as are penalties for failing to meet them (Clause 3.2). You must produce "not less than 30,000" words per month (a pace that even a prolific writer might find difficult to keep up on a constant basis). If you fail to deliver, you are "fully liable for losses arising from such failure"--an ominous phrase that the contract neither explains nor defines.

Furthermore, if that failure is "without cause", or you confirm that you can't finish, or you write "abnormally" (whatever that means) by failing to adhere to "outlines" (whatever those are), you are deemed to have breached the contract and NovelCat can simply take over the writing, and retain both copyright and income for such new writing, while still using your name as the author.


There's what amounts to a morals clause (Clause 3.2.8). You must "actively preserve the image of Party A" and can't take "any action that is prejudicial" to such image. Vague and sweeping language like this can be and is easily abused--especially since it would be up to NovelCat to decide what's "prejudicial"--and could seriously limit your ability to speak or write about your NovelCat experience.

It's not just about speech. If NovelCat deems you to have breached Clause 3.2.8, Clause 6.2.2. suggests that you could suffer quite a financial hit: "Party B shall pay Party A USD 1,000 as liquidated damages and punitive liquidated damages equal to twice the total amount of remuneration and relevant fees Party B has obtained from Party A. If such liquidated damages are not enough to compensate for Party A's losses, Party B shall be liable for all losses beyond such liquidated damages."

Disputes are governed by the laws of mainland China, and are subject to arbitration. Generally speaking, when you sign a contract with an arbitration clause, you're giving up your right to resolve disputes in court. Even without an arbitration clause, disputes can be very difficult to resolve if you're contracting with a company from overseas.

Bottom line: this is a really problematic contract. Even if NovelCat were willing to negotiate--and many reading/writing platforms absolutely are not--you'd have to do a major overhaul to make it more author-friendly. Additionally, the dense language is a chore to parse even for someone with a lot of knowledge, and its complexity can make even the kind of analysis I've done above hard to understand.

If all of that is challenging for someone like me, with years of experience reading publishing contracts, imagine what it's like for the writers NovelCat and others are seeking to recruit, many of whom are young, inexperienced, and don't have English as their first language.

Also, the explanations provided by the marketing people who approach these writers, while not actually false, is often misleading or incomplete--especially in regard to the income writers may receive from their presence on the platform. There are dozens of these platforms out there, all competing for readers: in other words, an increasingly diluted market. I'm hearing more and more from writers who've signed with one or another of the platforms and are discovering that even after months of posting segments or chapters, they still haven't made enough income to exceed the payout threshold. And because their contracts are interminable, they can't get free.

Writer beware.

UPDATE 12/4/21: I've just seen a contract from a company called MiracleNovel that is substantailly the same as the NovelCat contract. There are a few differences--a 10-year rather than a 20-year term, fewer subrights claimed, no advance, and the buyout clause discussed above isn't included--but otherwise the two contracts are word-for-word identical. 

My assumption was that it was the same company doing business under multiple names. But NovelCat's parent company is HK Xinmo Technology Limited, and MiracleNovel's is Shenzhen New Generation Culture Media Co.,LTD. And while HK Xinmo Technology has the kind of web presence you'd expect, Shenzhen New Generation Culture Media doesn't appear to have any web presence at all, or none that I could find anyway. 

Regardless, MiracleNovel is soliciting authors on Facebook. If you hear from them, be aware: their contract is terrible.
 
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