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.

December 4, 2018

SFWA Statement on Concerns/Complaints Regarding the Writers of the Future Contest


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

The Board of Directors of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have unanimously decided to formally and publicly acknowledge the multiple complaints and expressions of concern made both publicly and privately in recent months by former Writers of the Future finalists who state that they have had negative experiences during or after the event.

As a result, SFWA has formally contacted the WotF administrators, in hopes of launching a private dialogue between our organizations, and ensuring that these concerns are meaningfully addressed. In this effort, SFWA’s goal is to protect the rights of creators, thus strengthening all of science fiction and fantasy publishing, now and in the future. SFWA advises all writers to research carefully before participating in any literary contest.

For more information on contests, please visit SFWA’s Writer Beware page located here: http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/contests/.

Originally posted on SFWA website, December 03, 2018

November 20, 2018

Does the Bankruptcy Clause in Your Publishing Contract Really Protect You?


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

You may have read that Medallion Press filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection at the end of October (that's the kind that results in liquidation). According to PW,
In its filing, the publisher listed assets of $100,001 to $500,000 and liabilities in the same range. It cited between 200 to 999 creditors.

Under a Chapter 7 filing, a trustee will liquidate a company’s assets in order to earn as much money as it can to pay creditors. According to court documents, a meeting of creditors is scheduled for November 13, in the DuPage Courthouse in Wheaton, Ill. 

Medallion Press was founded in the early aughts as a mass market paperback publisher (Writer Beware saw one of its early contracts, which contained some troubling language, including a claim of copyright on edits). Although initially successful, its decline seems to have been spurred (or maybe accelerated) by its attempts to enter the film and tech business.

PW indicates that since word of the bankruptcy broke, "agents have been working to retrieve the publishing rights of their authors from the company." Unfortunately, it's not so easy.

If you check your publishing contract, you may see language that addresses bankruptcy and insolvency, similar to this:

In the event of the bankruptcy, insolvency or liquidation of the Publisher, this Agreement shall terminate and all rights granted to the Publisher shall revert to the Author automatically and without the necessity of any demand or notification.

This is a bankruptcy clause, a.k.a. an ipso facto clause (because "the fact itself" of the bankruptcy or insolvency triggers termination). It sounds pretty straightforward--publisher files for bankruptcy, rights revert, the end. In practice, though, that's not how it works. Thanks to key provisions of the Bankruptcy Code, ipso facto clauses are generally unenforceable, and are treated as such by the courts.

In a discussion of the Medallion bankruptcy, the Passive Voice blog explains:
[PW] says literary agents have been working to retrieve the publishing rights of their authors from Medallion. Unless the agents have retained competent bankruptcy counsel, that isn’t going to happen. Medallion no longer controls the publishing rights. Upon the filing of the Chapter 7 petition, which has already occurred, the bankruptcy court controls the publishing rights and all other assets owned by Medallion. Whoever may answer the phone at Medallion can’t do anything with publishing rights, regardless of how persuasive a literary agent may be....

[T]he publishing agreements between Medallion and its authors are assets that the bankruptcy trustee will try to sell for the best price possible to whoever will pay that price. Any claims for unpaid royalties owed to authors will likely be rolled into the pile of unpaid debts of Medallion and cash resulting from sales of assets will be divided among the printer, the utility companies, UPS, the bookstores that have returned Medallion books for a refund and not been paid, etc., etc., etc., and the authors.
A few examples: when digital publisher Triskelion declared bankruptcy in 2007, its contracts were eventually sold to Siren Publishing (which promptly released all rights back to the authors). Byron Preiss Publications went into Chapter 7 in early 2006, following Preiss's sudden death the previous year; its assets, which reportedly included more than 2,500 mostly fiction book contracts, were sold in December 2006 for less than asking price to nonfiction publisher Brick Tower Press. The assets of UK-based Black Dog Publishing, which went into liquidation in January 2018, were sold the following August to a company looking to expand its trade division. Things were messier for authors with indie publisher MacAdam Cage, after the publisher's 2014 Chapter 7 filing--they regained their print rights after a struggle, but not their e-rights, which had been sold some years earlier to a different publisher that was still in operation at the time of the bankruptcy.

If the contracts can't be sold, the bankruptcy trustee should eventually abandon them and order the return of rights to the authors--as happened when publishing scammer Martha Ivery tried to escape bad press and an FBI investigation by declaring bankruptcy. Either way, though, it's an involved process that can take months, during which time the contracts are frozen and authors and agents can do little except wait. Even if authors become aware of an impending bankruptcy and manage to revert rights before the bankruptcy petition is filed, they may still wind up in limbo, since the court may not consider such reversions valid because of their proximity to the filing. (For a summary of bankruptcy proceedings, including the impact on books under contract but not yet published, see this post from Jane Litte at Dear Author).

So why have an ipso facto clause at all if it offers so little protection? While it is unenforceable in regard to bankruptcy, that's not necessarily the case for other forms of insolvency. If your publisher goes belly up without a bankruptcy filing, the clause can be enforced--as long as you can find the publisher, of course. Bankruptcy takes time and costs money, and makes a business accountable to its creditors. Especially where there have been shady dealings, many troubled small publishers prefer to just disappear.

It's a difficult and frustrating situation in which to be stuck, and my sympathy goes out to the Medallion authors.

UPDATE: A reader and former Triskelion author provides this comment, which identifies another disadvantage of bankruptcy limbo:
The other point, the killer is that as soon as bankruptcy is declared, all assets are frozen. Since author contracts are counted as assets, that means the contracts do not tick down until they'e disposed of, i.e. sold. So if you are one year into a seven year contract, when the contract is sold, you still owe six years on that contract, even if it took a year to sell.

What we at Triskelion were thinking of trying was to show that author contracts were of little use unless they had the goodwill of the author - that if the author wasn't prepared to promote and acknowledge the work, then it could easily turn into a liability, since cover art, formatting etc had to be redone. But fortunately the contracts were sold to Siren, who gave all the books back to us.
The same reader also provided a correction: I'd written that Triskelion assets were acquired by LooseID (which did consider a bid), but in fact the buyer was Siren Publishing. I've revised my post to reflect this.

October 25, 2018

Authors Sue Owner of Green Ivy Publishing, Alleging Fraud

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I first started getting questions about Illinois-based Green Ivy Publishing in 2015. From its website (here's what it looked like then, courtesy of the Wayback Machine), it was clearly pay-to-play--not least in its use of the term "hybrid" to describe itself. Genuine hybrid publishers do exist, but far more often, "hybrid" is a marker for a deceptive vanity publisher.

Among other warning signs, no fees were listed for any of the "author services" purportedly provided. Missing prices on a vanity publisher's website usually signal that it's expensive. Sure enough, I soon started hearing from authors who'd been quoted fees in the $3,000-4,000 range, in some cases with additional fees due for add-on services (such as extra editing) that they were only told they had to buy after they'd signed the contract.


I wasn't surprised when, in late 2015, I began receiving complaints. Terrible, substandard edits. No response to emails and phone calls; in some cases, complete radio silence once the fee was paid. Delayed publication dates. Failure to publish at all.

Over the next couple of years, similar complaints accumulated online. Then, in early 2017, Green Ivy went out of business. As with the late, unlamented America Star Books, it closed down without informing its authors, whom it had bound to life-of-copyright contracts, or removing its books from sale. Most Green Ivy titles are still available on Amazon in Kindle editions. (ASB authors can testify to the difficulty of getting Amazon to agree to take such listings down.)

I didn't really expect to hear anything else about Green Ivy. But the other day, a news item caught my eye: twenty Green Ivy authors have filed suit in the Circuit Court of Cook County Illinois against Robert W. Gray Sr., Green Ivy's owner, and a John Doe conspirator using the name of Jay Caliendo. (To see the docket information, click on this search page, choose Law Division, and enter case number 2018-L-011282.)

The complaint isn't available online, but according to a summary from Law360,
The 20 clients, two of whom co-authored a book, all signed contracts with Green Ivy between October 2014 and January 2017 and agreed to pay anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000, with most people paying around $3,000, according to the complaint. Although some of the clients paid off the fee in monthly installments, most eventually paid the entire amount, the complaint said.

In exchange, Green Ivy was supposed to edit, produce and market the books, according to the complaint. However, some clients found major flaws in the editing and graphics during production, and clients typically had a hard time reaching employees or getting answers to their questions, the complaint said.

Green Ivy also did not provide many clients with sales figures or royalty checks, according to the complaint.

Eventually, Green Ivy allegedly stopped responding to clients and shut down. The state of Illinois currently lists the company as “not in good standing.”
Law360 also describes the complaint as alleging that the Green Ivy operation was an adaptation by Gray, a patent attorney, of an "invention-promotion scheme" in which he was involved, which led to disciplinary action from the US Patent and Trademark Office and ultimately got him excluded from practicing before the USPTO. Gray ran something called The Independent Inventor's Program, through which he provided legal services to the US Patent Commission Ltd., a company that purported to help inventors protect and patent their inventions--for a high fee, of course (you can get a sense of how such predatory schemes work from this BBB complaint as well as this lawsuit brought by an unhappy USPC client; the FTC also provides this warning). According to the final order in the USPTO's disciplinary action against Gray, he "engaged in numerous conflicts of interest with regard to accepting USPC-referred clients" (among them: allowing USPC to use his law firm's name as inducement to purchase USPC's services, thereby assuring a supply of clients for himself), as well as "conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation".

The Green Ivy authors' lawsuit was filed on October 12. Gray, who is now located in Florida, has yet to respond. He's also the focus of an earlier lawsuit brought by a Green Ivy client, which you can read here.

October 19, 2018

The Continued Decline of Author Solutions

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last week, Bowker released its periodic report on ISBN output in the self-publishing field, updated with 2016 and 2017 figures.

There are many interesting bits of information in the report--including CreateSpace's hulking dominance of the field, with more than 10 times the output of its closest competitor, Smashwords (although it should be said that the usefulness of this comparison--and of the figures themselves--in assessing the growth of self-publishing is undercut by the omission of popular self-pub platforms like IngramSpark and Draft2Digital, and also by the fact that many authors who employ these services don't use ISBNs at all).

What I want to focus on, though, is Author Solutions--where ISBN output is a useful measure of overall activity, since all AS publishing packages include ISBN assignment.

In previous posts, I've followed AS's steady decline, from an all time high of 52,548 ISBNs in 2011 (one year before Pearson bought it and folded it into Penguin), to less than half that in 2015 (the same year that Penguin unloaded it to a private equity firm called Najafi Companies*).

In the latest version of Bowker's report, that slide continues. 2016 did see a small post-Najafi uptick, from 24,587 to 30,288; but in 2017 the freefall resumed, with ISBNs dropping to 25,971--just slightly above 2015's output. A few of the individual imprints do show negligible increases, but for the most part they all go down (by four figures in the case of AuthorHouse).


Looking separately at print and ebooks, it's clear that the decline is primarily driven by print. Between 2012 and 2017, print ISBNs dropped by nearly half. There's no 2016 bump--in fact the numbers continue to fall--and output plunges more than 18% in 2017.


Turning to ebooks, we can see that the 2016 bump in overall ISBNs was entirely due to ebooks, which decreased drastically in 2015 but more than doubled the following year. In 2017, though, the trend reasserts itself. Although some imprints do show gains, the net result is a drop of 6%--less than print, but down is down.


AS's long, slow fade says a lot about how self-publishing has changed over the past decade, and it's both good and bad news. The costly and often deceptive "assisted self-publishing" services that proliferated in the early days of digital publishing are gradually being supplanted by better options, and authors who are savvier about self-publishing know to avoid them. At the same time, though, the self-publishing field is increasingly monopolized by Amazon. And at least for now, the bad old services like AS are still managing to snag enough customers to hang on.**

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

* Worth noting: AS's timeline of significant events in its history, which makes much of its acquisition by Pearson/Penguin, somehow doesn't mention anything about its sale to Najafi Companies.

Najafi appears to have made some pretty drastic changes after it took over. According to one former employee, posting on Glassdoor,


Other Glassdoor reviews confirm this information. I guess authors aren't the only ones getting screwed.

** As are the scams--in particular the growing number of Author Solutions copycat companies run out of the Philippines, in many cases by ex-Author Solutions call center staff.

October 2, 2018

Contest Caution: Waldorf Publishing's Manuscript Contest


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Another contest! I seem to be writing about these a lot lately.

This contest is from Waldorf Publishing, which is "is always seeking new talent to add to our extensive roster." I'm going to count the red flags that are evident just from the contest and Waldorf's website--plus the secret one that you'd never know was there because Waldorf actively conceals it.

Red flag number one: the contest rules. These don't look so bad, until you get to this:


Entrants retain copyright, but so does Waldorf? Say what? They can't both be true. If Waldorf is this confused about its rules--or, perhaps, about the difference between rights and copyright--it is not a good sign. (I suspect the latter: I've seen Waldorf contracts, and they don't claim copyright.)

Red flag number two: Here's what you can win. Reads like a self-publishing package rather than traditional publishing, doesn't it? Complete with junk marketing.


Red flag number three: the entrance fee is $49. This isn't as high as some profiteering contests, which can charge $100 or even more; but it's still high enough to suggest that Waldorf has an eye to making a bit of cash from this contest.

Waldorf's "focus is not only on producing unique, quality reading for a wide audience, but also to help our authors gain the recognition they deserve." Waldorf touts the many media opportunities it supposedly has assisted its authors to obtain--CNN, the BBC, NPR, The Guardian, and many more; however, there's nothing on Waldorf's website to confirm any of those claims. No links to articles. No author testimonials. Not even a Press page.

Unverifiable claims: that's red flag number four.

Red flag number five: the covers. A few are OK. Others are so obviously amateurish they must be author-created (or if not, Waldorf employs really bad illustrators). Many are actually inferior to the "custom" covers designed by assisted self-publishing services. Clearly there isn't a lot of quality control going on here.

Red flag number six: Waldorf has released 75 books so far in 2018. That's up from 49 in 2017, 23 in 2016, and just 14 in 2015. Not only is that a major ramp-up year to year, it's also a really big release schedule for 2018. Unless Waldorf maintains a large staff of editors, illustrators, and publicists, there's no way these books are going to receive careful production or publisher support....

...Which brings us to red flag number seven: who the heck is running the company? The only staff member discussed on Waldorf's About page is the owner, Barbara Terry, who appears to have had no professional publishing or writing experience before establishing Waldorf in 2014 (her one book, How Athletes Roll, was issued by the now-defunct Comfort Publishing, which charged fees). She claims to be assisted by "a small team of talented individuals"--but who are these people? What are their qualifications? Do they exist? It's a mystery. A reputable publisher should provide this information.

I've gone into detail on all these red flags to demonstrate that, even without being aware of the most pertinent information about this company--information it keeps secret from the public--there is a lot to question about Waldorf Publishing and its contest. You really don't need this secret information at all to recognize that both are best avoided.

So what's the secret information? You've probably already guessed. Red flag number eight: Waldorf is pay-to-play, though authors won't discover this until they receive a contract offer (unless they contact me, of course). This is from the "Royalty Presentation" it sends to authors:
This is one of the sneakier examples of the lengths vanity publishers will go to in order to be able to claim that they're not vanities. The carrot of the higher royalties (which are paid on net, by the way) is intended to make the fees seem more palatable (and it's a very small carrot, given the absolutely dire Amazon sales rankings of most of Waldorf's recent books). Maybe some authors do choose the 10% "industry standard" (ha!) royalty and publish for free--but it's clear that Waldorf's business model is built on author fees, and a publisher that makes money before a book is even published has little incentive to cut into that up-front profit by providing high-quality production services and promotional support to the books it releases.

Red flag number nine:  by concealing the fact that it charges fees, Waldorf is deceptive.

All things considered, winning a free publishing package in a contest from a stealth vanity publisher is not much of a prize.

September 28, 2018

Small Press Storm Warnings: Fiery Seas Publishing


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In March of 2014, a small press called Entranced Publishing closed its doors less than a year after issuing its first books, amid a haze of lies, unpaid authors and staff, and bizarre claims about a change in ownership.

Only two months later, in May 2014, Fiery Seas Publishing (FSP) posted its first acquisitions on Publishers Marketplace.

What's the connection? FSP founder Misty Williams's previous job was as a publicist for Entranced. Like others, Williams was a victim of a possibly dishonest publisher (in this comment, she indicates that she was never paid)--but the best one can say about working for Entranced is that it wouldn't have provided any insight into how a real publisher operates. And while Williams claims "over ten years experience from writing to marketing and publicity to editorial," there's scant evidence for that, at least online.

Inexperienced publishers are one of the pitfalls of the small press world. They are far more likely to have nonstandard business practices, issue poor contracts, get into financial and/or logistical trouble, and go out of business after just a few years--sometimes without canceling contracts and reverting rights, or paying money owed to authors and staff. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll be very familiar with such stories. If you're an author, you may well have personal experience.

So I wasn't terribly surprised when, in mid-2017, I began getting complaints about late royalty payments and poor communication at Fiery Seas. Just a trickle...but enough, and similar enough in the details, to spur concern.

Then, on August 28 of this year, FSP authors received an alarming email from Williams. Due to "different events," and "sales numbers not being where they need to be," the company was re-structuring: eliminating paperbacks, switching distributors (from Ingram to Baker & Taylor), and re-vamping the royalty statements. If authors wanted to leave, they were free to do so. The email also acknowledged--indirectly--the communications issues I'd been hearing about.
Good morning,

I wanted to take a moment and send an update on many things happening here at Fiery Seas and hopefully put some of you at ease.

Due to the many different events that have taken place and sales numbers not being where they need to be, Fiery Seas will be restructuring our business.

We have had major issues with our distributor and they are issues that are out of my hands. While I have had to explain this many times in the past little while. I want to make sure that everyone is aware. I have been going around and around with them for not replacing damaged books, messing up orders, not getting orders out on time, and more. We have had some issues with retailers not uploading and making our paperbacks available when all of that information is available to them. We could have all of them up on all other sites, but one and they have the same information sent from Ingram. These are things I can’t make them do. I call and I complain until I’m blue in the face, but I still have to wait to see what will happen. So, for this reason we will make some changes to the way we do things.

First, we will no longer do paperbacks until a threshold is met, at that time we will look at print runs. This WILL NOT affect the books that are coming out this year or those that are already out. However, we will be changing our distribution channels starting now and slowly move all of our titles to the new channels.

We will be working on more promotions to get our books in front of readers. We have new outlets we are working on for this to spread our reach. We will work on doing more genre-related promos, as well. We are working on these things already, but will hit them full force come 2019

Our royalty statements structure will change to make it more updated and correct the current issues we have run into this year. Yes, we have seen the problems and only want to fix them and KEEP them from happening. This will be completed by the end of this year and everything will be ready for the New Year.

We understand that many will be unhappy with our decisions and may decide to leave the company. We completely understand this and will do what we can to help the process or help with whatever you may decide to do. We will ask for 90 days to finalize everything and all proper accounting to be done, if you decide to leave us.

We are starting this process now and plan to have it completed by the end of the year. This means things will be delayed, but we are working very hard on everything so it doesn't happen again.

This doesn’t fix what has already been done, but it will make things better. I started this company because I love working with authors and love the publishing industry. This is not an easy business and it takes dictation [sic]. Like many of you, I too work outside of Fiery Seas, but I pull more hours on than you know, even if you don’t always see my actions. I know I have a ton of emails to go through and that I will have more after this email. I think some of them get lost at times because I have so many. It is not because I’m ignoring anyone or that I don’t want to answer you. It is because I’m trying to get through them all. Working on issues along the way. So, just know that I will respond to you ASAP and I am listening to everything you say.

There will be more updates over the course of this restructuring to keep you all informed. Questions will be addressed as quickly as possible.

All the best,

Misty Williams
Publisher
Fiery Seas Publishing
FSP authors, who'd been concerned for several months about problems at the company, began contacting me. Complaints included missed pub dates; delayed (by months) royalty payments and statements; absent royalty payments and statements (one author told me they had never been paid); royalty statements missing sales the authors could prove had been made; failure to register copyrights, even though FSP's contract (unusually for a small press) requires the publisher to do so (I confirmed this myself via the US Copyright Office's registration database); and difficulty getting firm answers to their questions. When challenged on the payment delays and lack of sales numbers, for instance, Williams blamed Ingram; at other times she claimed to be ill, overwhelmed with email, or "working on it."

One author who pushed to be paid had their book pulled from distribution (the author showed me proof that they are owed several thousand dollars). Another contacted RWA to report the payment issues at FSP; an email to Willliams from RWA Executive Director Alison Kelley did produce a royalty check--but only for part of the amount due. I also heard from an FSP editor who told me that they had received payment for only six of the over 20 projects on which they worked.

I emailed Williams with a list of author-reported problems and a request for comment. She acknowledged that "we have had some issues", and stated that FSP's "main focus right now is to make sure that everything gets done and to the authors like is [sic] should be...we will make sure that all authors get what they are due." She did not address any of the specific problems I mentioned.

FSP authors say they are still waiting for payment, and struggle to get a response from Williams. In another sign of turmoil at the company, FSP will soon be losing its marketing director: her contract ended in September and apparently will not be renewed. I'm told that the only remaining FSP staff are Williams and two part-time editors.

FSP is currently closed to submissions, which seems sensible given the circumstances.

POSTSCRIPT: Looking at FSP's Publishers Marketplace listing, I was surprised to see that it has worked with agents (FSP, which primarily accepts submissions directly from authors and doesn't pay advances, is not the kind of publisher you hire an agent to approach).

Two of these agents, both of whom placed multiple books with FSP, are on Writer Beware's radar due to serious, documented author complaints: Mark Gottlieb of Trident Media, who recently resigned from the AAR after the Ethics Committee recommended his expulsion; and Linda Langton of Langtons International, who is known for referring potential clients to her own expensive editing service, and in three cases has either settled claims or received a judgment in favor of unhappy former clients (Langton has solid sales but also questionable placements, including to vanity publishers Austin Macauley and Anaphora Press).

Interesting.

August 31, 2018

De Montfort Literature: Career Jumpstart or Literary Sweatshop?


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I was planning on writing about De Montfort Literature myself, but Alliance of Independent Authors watchdog John Doppler beat me to it, with this excellent warning post.

Started by hedge fund manager Jonathan de Montfort  (I have some questions here; see the update below), DML promises to help writers kick-start their careers by paying them an annual salary of £24,000, plus royalties, to write novels that will be published under the DML brand. DML also promises to provide a pension and "all computer equipment and software necessary." As with Inkitt, there's an algorithm. It also looks like the company wants to create its own proprietary e-reader software (a risky move, unless you're Amazon).

What must writers agree to in return? Not much. Just surrender copyright (per its FAQ, DML claims copyright not just to novels, but to ideas--despite the fact that copyright does not cover ideas)*, write only for DML, accept net profit royalties (always a huge red flag), and give up their day jobs (yes, you read that right). Early versions of the DML FAQ described a punitive non-compete provision barring authors from writing for other publishers for two years after leaving DML; that appears to have been re-thought, however, and is no longer mentioned on the website.

*(John Doppler has updated his post with new information provided by Mr. de Montfort, including the claim that "Technically, the author retains ownership of the copyright, but licenses the content and all rights, subrights, and options exclusively to DML..." However, as of this writing, DML's FAQ clearly states that DML takes ownership of copyright.)

(Update: As of early November 2018, the FAQ has been revised to state that authors retain their copyrights. See below for details.)

To even have a chance of joining this venture, writers must submit to a mysterious application process involving multiple NDAs and a "psychometric test." (Interested writers are well-advised to carefully read DML's Privacy Policy, which among other things discusses what the company can do with the psychometric data.) Per DML's Twitter feed, response has been overwhelming. This seems to have resulted in multiple delays (the delays were confirmed to me by a participating writer).

I don't doubt that there are good intentions here. And any beginning writer (and even many established ones) can appreciate the appeal of a steady salary to practice their craft. But there are also obvious problems, as noted above--and even beyond those, as John Doppler points out, hedge fund experience does not equal publishing experience:
Jonathan De Montfort, the individual behind this venture, is a successful hedge fund manager who credits his firm’s success to “a mathematical system based partly on the Fibonacci sequence”. He claims this system has successfully predicted financial markets, the 2008 crash, and Brexit, and other events, and now believes it can be applied to literature. “I have taken what I know about hedge fund management and applied it to literature,” reads a quote on the company’s website.

However, De Montfort’s experience with publishing appears to be extremely limited; his first novel, Turner is scheduled to be published on August 31st of this year.

In a June 1 interview with The Guardian, De Montfort’s view of publishing becomes more apparent. He says, “The traditional publishing models for fiction writers are littered with obstacles. Securing a literary agent is a lottery, and self-publishing is costly and time-consuming.” DML’s website positions their approach as a “new, alternative route to the traditional agents and publishers” which will “make being a novelist a valid career choice…”

The thousands of career authors who are earning a living wage from their “invalid career choice” may take exception to those comments.
Lack of experience and untested concept aside, could De Montfort Literature succeed? Could it maintain good and ethical working relationships, establish excellent distribution and marketing networks, and parlay a stable of books and authors into a profitable business for all concerned? It's certainly possible. But writers need to also consider less rosy scenarios, one of which Doppler lays out as follows:
1. The author passes DML’s screening and is accepted into the program.
2. The author quits their day job to pursue their passion, writing.
3. The author collects a steady paycheck.
4. DML’s algorithms decide that steamy vampire detective thrillers have high profit potential.
5. DML assigns the author a steamy vampire detective thriller project very loosely based on the author’s original historical romance idea.
6. DML requires six steamy vampire detective novels per year. Writer’s block is not allowed.
7. The author has an idea for a fascinating book on a topic that has captivated their interest. DML declines to pursue the project. The idea now belongs to DML, and the writer is prohibited from authoring similar works.
8. Although the author is entitled to 50% of the steamy vampire net profits, DML claims that marketing, production, and salaries have resulted in a net loss.
9. The author quits in disgust… or DML informs the author that they are no longer needed and dismisses them.
10. DML retains the rights to use the author’s name, branding, ideas, and books.
11. The author is prohibited from writing or publishing anything for two years.
12. Meanwhile, DML markets a series of horrendous steamy vampire detective thriller under the author’s name, ghostwritten by an overworked amateur.
13. When the author asks DML to stop, the company invites the author to buy back the rights to their intellectual property for $20,000.00.
Doppler notes that further information from Mr. de Montfort qualifies some of these projections: for instance, the algorithms will be used only for writer selection, not to choose book genres. Still, I can't resist proposing my own alternate scenario: DML disappears without ever putting out a single book other than de Montfort's own.

Turner is DML's first (and so far only) publication. With a release date of August 31, it will provide an interesting test case for DML's marketing, distribution, and sales strategies (that it is initially being released only in print, and currently appears to be available only on UK retailers' websites, are not encouraging signs). If you're thinking of applying to become a DML writer, I'd suggest you consider holding off until Turner has been out for a while, and you can assess its performance.

UPDATE 9/7/18: I've been doing a bit of research into Mr. de Montfort and his investment firm, De Montfort Capital (DMC). What I'm finding is...odd.

The firm's current website states that the company was founded in 2013. And indeed, DMC's web domain was registered in that year. However, from 2013 through at least early 2018, DMC's website was basically a placeholder, complete with non-working links and fake Latin text fillers (not to mention typos). Here it is in January 2018, courtesy of the Wayback Machine:


Three team members are listed: Jonathan de Montfort, James Turner, and Richard de Montfort. It's worth noting that Jonathan de Montfort's middle name is Richard.

DMC's business address at that time--145-157 St John Street, London--was a virtual office address sold by Companies Made Simple. Companies Made Simple also sells company formation services.


DMC's website was re-vamped sometime after March 2018 to provide a more stylish and fully functional (if curiously bare) web presence. Its business address also changed, to 20-22 Wenlock Road, London--really just a cosmetic shift, because that's the new address of the very same Companies Made Simple, which moved to the new digs in early 2015.

Co-working space is available for rent at the Wenlock Street address, so DMC's address may not be completely virtual. Even if it were, there's nothing wrong with that. But it's not what you'd expect of a successful hedge fund company--nor is the long period of time following the company's founding date during which DMC's web presence was a mere placeholder.

DMC's filing history, available at Companies House, makes for interesting reading. It's classed as a micro-company (as of 30 April 2017, its total net assets were under £10,000). Through 29 April 2018, its SIC code (Standard Industrial Classification, used in the UK for classifying industries) was 82990, or "other business support service activities n.e.c.", which includes a range of activities, such as meter reading and repossession services, that aren't typical of hedge funds.

Then, on 15 May 2018, just a few days after the launch of De Montfort Literature, DMC added three new SIC codes: 47610 (retail sale of books in specialised stores); 58110 (book publishing); and 64303 (activities of venture and development capital companies).

That an investment firm founded in 2013 should only classify itself as such in May 2018 seems (to put it mildly) rather peculiar. There's also very little on DMC's website, or findable online, to support its claim of success--no investment history, no fund descriptions, no staff names (at least on the website's current version) or bios other than Mr. de Montfort's own. The only investment that's actually named (besides DML) is Minds.com, a cryptocurrency-focused social media network that describes itself as "an open-source and decentralized platform for internet freedom" and has attracted some buzz as a potential Facebook competitor.

Around the same time he incorporated De Montfort Literature, de Montfort established two additional companies: De Montfort Media and De Montfort Technology.

There may be important information that I've missed, or that isn't publicly available, that casts a different light on all of the above. As of now, though, something about these De Montfort ventures isn't adding up for me. If nothing else, it's another reason to be cautious about De Montfort Literature.

UPDATE 10/4/18: On its Facebook page, DML has announced that it has inked distribution deals with Macmillan Distribution in the UK and Consortium in the USA. I was able to confirm that DML is listed on Macmillan's website, but as of this writing there's no mention of it at Consortium.

That would seem to be good news for a fledgling publisher. However, DML's Facebook page is gathering numerous questions from authors who are wondering why their applications have received no response, and at least one author who was persistent in their questions has been blocked from the page. From August 30:


From October 2:


In another possible sign of trouble, the pub date for Turner has been pushed back to October 22.

UPDATE 11/8/18: DML's FAQ has been revised to state that authors do retain their copyrights.


I'm guessing that by "own all of the derivative product and format rights", DML means that authors will be exclusively granting those rights to DML for exploitation and licensing. At least I hope that's what it means, because "own" means something different. I guess we'll have to wait for an actual contract to know for sure.

I've also heard from a couple of authors who've finally received responses to their applications, so maybe the logjam there is shifting. And Turner has finally been released.

UPDATE 12/9/18: DML has updated its Copyright FAQ again:

I'm not sure how much this clarifies things, since DML still seems to be fuzzy on the difference between granting rights and owning them. The wording also implies that authors would be able to regain (for an unspecified price) rights only to contracted work that DML had not yet published, and only to the "storyline" for that work (the implication being that DML would retain publishing and other rights, which would pretty much make the work unpublishable anywhere else). But again, we'll have to wait for a DML contract to know for sure.

In other news, it appears that over 300 authors have been selected for DML's next round (the psychometric test), and writers, again, are growing anxious about updates.

August 21, 2018

Contest Caution: The Short Story Project's My Best Story Competition


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

This post has been updated.

There's another big-money writing competition in town: The Short Story Project's My Best Story contest.

The Short Story Project (TSSP) offers customized lists of curated short stories for download, in text and audio form. Right now, the stories on the site are a mix of in-copyright and public domain works; TSSP also appears to be planning to allow writers to submit stories directly, with perks such as a "professional review" tied to the number of reads. Stories can be accessed for free; there are also subscription plans that ensure an ad-free reading experience.

So what about the competition? 20 writers can win prizes ranging from $125 (for 10th place) to $5,000 (for the grand prize winner). Included is SmartEdit software and publication on TSSP for the top five writers. Competition judges are not only named, but have genuine credentials (this is one of the more important ways of distinguishing a fake contest from a real one). Word limit is 2,500, entry fee is a not-unreasonable $17, and the deadline for submissions is September 30.

So far, so good. As always, though, the devil is in the fine print--in particular, the fine print regarding intellectual property rights. Though TSSP makes it all sound very simple--
--its Terms and Conditions tell a different story [UPDATE: the T&C have been amended. See below].


Merely by entering the competition, writers are granting sweeping publication and commercialization rights not just to TSSP, but to anyone associated with it who obtains a copy of the writer's story "in connection with Sponsor's business."

It's not uncommon for competitions to require writers to grant various rights upon submitting, as a kind of shortcut to ensure that the sponsor will have those rights already in hand when winners are chosen. But such a grant should be temporary, and should always be balanced by language ensuring that rights are released back to entrants if they don't win.

TSSP's T&C do not include any such language. Not only that, they extend the grant of rights to unidentified third parties working "on Sponsor's behalf." In other words, whether or not you win, TSSP and unknown people associated with it retain publishing rights to your entry in perpetuity, and can do pretty much anything they want with it without payment or even notice to you. Yes, the grant is non-exclusive, which means that you can publish elsewhere--but since entering this competition is in effect a grant of first rights to TSSP, you will only ever be able to sell your story as a reprint.

In addition, entrants must agree to a sweeping indemnification clause whose language suggests they will have no recourse for improper use of their stories (such as intellectual property theft):


Resolving claims might be difficult in any case--at least for US- and UK-based writers--given that the contest is governed by the laws of Israel, and any disputes must be resolved there. (As is increasingly common these days in T&Cs, the guidelines also bar class action lawsuits.)

Less than two weeks ago, I wrote about a different competition whose T&Cs also failed to release entrants from a grant of rights required on entry. This is a fairly common issue with competitions that include a grant of rights in their guidelines, and I think in many cases it's just carelessness (or, sometimes, ignorance) on the part of the sponsor--a failure to consider consequences, rather than because the competition is greedy or shady. But--assuming the competition actually isn't greedy or shady--there really is no excuse for it, given how easy it is to fix, simply by adding language terminating the grants of non-winners immediately upon announcement of competition results.

Yet another demonstration of why writers must pay careful attention to the fine print of competition guidelines, and make sure they understand what they may be giving up by entering.

UPDATE: TSSP is soliciting entries via Messenger, offering 50% discounts on the entry fee.



UPDATE 8/27/18: Last week, TSSP's founder, Iftach Alony, offered to answer some questions from Writer Beware. His responses are below.

Iftach says that he will amend the License to Entry clause of TSSP's contest guidelines to clarify that the grant of rights is digital only, and will add language releasing the rights of non-winners 6 months after the competition ends. He has assured me that both these changes will be retroactive for writers who've already entered the competition.

The 6-month lag time in releasing rights, presumably, will enable TSSP to publish deserving stories other than those chosen as winners. However, TSSP's grant of rights is explicitly "free of charge"--so if you submit to this competition, be aware that you are consenting to possibly being published without payment.

In responding to my question about payment, Iftach points to the free perks TSSP's writers receive (such as audio recordings and translations), as well as the exposure they'll gain by appearing on TSSP, as "assets" that offset the lack of payment. However, those free perks are not available initially or to everyone. And I would remind authors that "writing for exposure" is only of value if you can confirm that there really is exposure.

I remain concerned about TSSP's indemnification language. And I'm not satisfied by Iftach's response to my question about why TSSP's License to Entry clause extends authors' grant of rights to unnamed third parties. He claims that this is "a common clause in...rights agreements." That's not my impression at all. (Hopefully someone knowledgeable will correct me if I'm wrong.)

I'll keep an eye on TSSP's competition guidelines and update this post when they're amended.

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

WRITER BEWARE: In emails to me, and in a comment on my post, you've repeatedly stated that TSSP is asking writers to grant only digital rights. But the current language of your contest guidelines' License to Entry clause does not limit the grant of rights to digital only; in fact the word "digital" doesn't appear at all. Can you address this discrepancy?

IFTACH ALONY: TSSP, does not deal with any kind of printed literature, it's one of the project essentials, encouraging "digital literature". I guess that it was so obvious to us, that we didn't pay enough attention. We will correct it, making it clear that the rights to the wining stories are only for the non-exclusive digital rights.

WB: Can you explain why you retain the rights of all writers who enter your contest? Why do you choose not to release those rights back to non-winners?

IA: Our intention is to publish all stories which we find suitable for our UGC platform. This can only be done if we have the writers permission/rights. TSSP has no interest in keeping the rights to non-winners, and we will correct the wording to make it clear that non-winners rights are released. I must admit that we were mostly thinking of how to enable writers to publish and expose their works, enabling TSSP to publish the stories.

WB: Might you be willing to add a clause to your competition guidelines releasing the rights of non-winners once the winners have been chosen?

IA: As mentioned in the previous answer - rights of non-winners will be released. We will keep, for a limited period of 6 months, the writers permission to publish his work on the TSSP UGC platform.

WB: Your License to Entry clause extends the grant of rights to "any person obtaining a copy of the [contest] Entry on Sponsor’s behalf." Can you give me an idea of who those third parties might be, and why you feel it's necessary for them to have a claim on entrants' rights?

IA: I'm not a lawyer, and as I understand, this is a normal and acceptable clause which is part of any agreement TSSP made while purchasing the rights to publish a story, and as far as I understand, it is a common clause in most of the right agreements, especially while dealing with one story.

WB: In an email to me, you mentioned that fair payment for writers is one of TSSP's goals. I wholeheartedly agree! However, the License to Entry clause explicitly states that contest entrants are granting rights "free of charge" in perpetuity. How does this square with your goal of fair payment?

IA: I think that you are missing a main point here, the resources which are invested in publishing a story on TSSP platform - translating to the different languages, recording by a professional narrator, adjusting to the platform technical requirements, creating the image, etc. etc. all those investments are also the writers assets, as he can use them for free!! To be more precise: a) TSSP gives the writer free access and use of the translation and recording. This is worth much more than the story rights, for a very acclaimed writer or a contest winner. b) Publishing the story on the TSSP platform is exposing the work to hundreds of thousands of readers! This gives the writer a unique opportunity to get acquainted by audiences that it would have otherwise been almost impossible to, not to mention the costs it would occur . We strongly think that for a writer, this overall exposure, audio and translation are assets which can be easily measured.

You have partly quoted what I wrote to you – I mentioned that TSSP is in the midst of developing an algorithm that will enable the writer to be part of TSSP revenues.

Generally stating, I don't understand your point – as a writer, I think that having exposure in TSSP ONE story out of a collection, in whatever terms, can be deemed only as a benefit.

WB: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

IA: The Short Story Project's mission is firstly to encourage reading and breaking the language barrier. As I am passionate for short stories, I decided to be active in this, genre. One of TSSP missions is to encourage short literature, making it vibrant and essential. I believe that there is no art as literature, and specifically short story literature, to discover human conditions.

If any further clarifications are needed, do not hesitate approaching me.

Thank You,

Iftach Alony
Founder,
The Short Story Project

UPDATE 9/3/18: As promised, TSSP has amended its Terms & Conditions. Here's the new License to Entry clause:


The grant of rights has been limited to contest winners, and also to publication, reproduction, etc. by "digital means only" (which, it has to be noted, would not rule out print, contrary to what's claimed the comment below from a TSSP staffer).

This is definitely an improvement. However, two of the issues I discuss above have not been addressed: the grant of rights is still extended to "any person obtaining a copy of the Entry on Sponsor's behalf", and the language of indemnification clause, which potentially deprives authors of recourse in the event of intellectual property theft, has not been changed. For me, that's still enough to make this contest a "caution."

August 10, 2018

Contest Beware: Fiction War Magazine


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Fiction War Magazine, owned by Wolvesburrow Productions ("a front-to-back engineer of design, publishing, in print, and online content"), is a publisher of flash fiction (500-1,000 words). In addition to an open call, for which it charges a $5 submission fee via Submittable, it runs regular competitions--for instance, this one, for the third quarter of 2018. The fees for these quarterly contests are quite a bit higher: $25, plus a $3.45 "fee", for a total of $28.45.

Entry fees are not necessarily a sign of a questionable competition--though they do need to be proportional. Presumably, in Fiction War's case, they go to fund the sizeable prizes: $1,000 for the winner and $100 for 14 finalists, all of whom are promised publication in an issue of the magazine.

Prizes or no, $28.45 is still a big entry fee for a 500-1,000 word story--which, to my mind, raises the question of whether Fiction War may have folded some profit in there. I also find it somewhat unsavory that Fiction Wars has an affiliate program, which pays "recruiters" a 25% referral bonus for every registration they refer. (The tag line: "Quickly earn enough to pay your own entry fee!")

These concerns, along with competition guidelines that provide for prize payment "within 30 days of print publication" (it's always a red flag when publishers pay on or after publication, since they may use such provisions to delay or avoid payment--but prize winnings should never made contingent like this), and include language* requiring entrants to grant exclusive first and ongoing non-exclusive publishing rights simply by submitting (in other words, if you submit a story to Fiction War, you cannot ever publish it anywhere else unless Fiction War publishes it first), would be enough for me to advise serious caution to anyone thinking of entering one of Fiction War's competitions.

However, it appears that there are even more pressing reasons to avoid Fiction War.

Over the past two weeks, I've gotten multiple complaints from authors who won the grand prize or were chosen as finalists in one or another of Fiction War's competitions: aggressive editing (to writers concerned about major, and in some cases apparently random, changes to their work, Fiction Wars responded that they could always re-publish the original version elsewhere once the magazine had been released), major editing and proof delays (over a year in some cases), and prize payments delayed by months or absent entirely (see the payment provisions, above).

Although Fiction War is supposed to be quarterly, only two magazines have actually been published, both in 2017. Despite this, and even as timeliness and payment problems continued to develop and compound over the course of 2017 and 2018, Fiction Wars continued to conduct and advertise competitions (and, of course, to collect entry fees).

Writers who contacted me told me that they believe Fiction War is a well-intentioned enterprise that has gotten in over its head. But good intentions and $2.75 will get you on the subway, and if I had a dollar for every well-intentioned publisher I've heard about whose good intentions didn't prevent it from screwing its authors over, I'd have a nice nest egg by now. To me, Fiction War's recent response, to a writer who contacted it to ask about payment, speaks volumes: "Please know that we take defamation very seriously."

As of this writing, Duotrope has de-listed Fiction War.


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

* Here's the actual language of the grant of rights clause.


Competitions often require writers to grant various rights upon submitting, as a kind of shortcut ensuring that the competition will have those rights already in hand when winners are chosen. But such a requirement should be temporary, and should always be balanced by language ensuring that rights are released back to entrants if they don't win. There's no such language in Fiction War's guidelines.

UPDATE 8/11/18: Fiction War responds.


It's pretty clear that Fiction War either doesn't understand, or is seriously misinterpreting, its own grant of rights language.

By requiring writers to grant first publishing rights simply by submitting to the contests, and failing to release them from that grant if they aren't chosen for publication, Fiction War is making it impossible for any writer who submits to its contests to publish anywhere else. To put it another way, Fiction War is not only claiming first publication rights for all submissions, it is retaining those rights even for writers who don't win its contests or are not chosen for publication.

It is not uncommon for a competition to claim exclusive first publishing rights if it intends to publish winners, finalists, etc. (even though writers thinking of entering such a competition should consider how long they are willing to have their work off the market). But its guidelines MUST include language releasing that claim THE INSTANT writers are eliminated from the competition. Fiction War currently does not do this.

Also, prize winnings should not be treated like story payments. Publishers can and do pay on or after publication (though this can be a red flag, as indicated above)--but prize winnings should be disbursed immediately upon announcement of the winners, and not made contingent upon a further action, such as publication.

I'm also scratching my head over this, received this morning. I appreciate the polite tone, but...really?
ANOTHER UPDATE 8/11/18: Fiction War continues to respond. Note the reference to "bullies."


UPDATE 8/13/18: Fiction War has added the following to the guidelines on its competition pages, just below the grant of rights language quoted above (though it has not changed its general submission guidelines): "For works not selected for publishing, all rights are solely held by the author."

In private correspondence with me, Fiction War has indicated that this is intended to address the concerns about rights that I've outlined in this post. Unfortunately the language it has chosen is quite vague, and does not make explicitly clear a) that the grant of rights does terminate (unless they surrender copyright, authors always hold all their rights; that's what makes it possible for them to license those rights to others), or b) if it terminates, when (do writers find out they haven't been chosen for publication when competition winners are announced? Some other time?)

Here's the language I suggested to Fiction War: "For writers who are not chosen for publication, this grant of rights terminates immediately upon announcement of the winners."

All of this quibbling over wording may seem trivial, but any writer who's been involved in a dispute over contract terms knows how non-trivial the consequences of vague, imprecise, or incomplete contract language can be. Here's just one example.

UPDATE 10/20/18: Fiction War has published a third issue, which it is calling Spring 2017. It is also continuing to advertise competitions. However, the problems with payment and communication appear to be ongoing.

August 2, 2018

Author Rachel Ann Nunes Wins Her Copyright Infringement Lawsuit Against an Amazon Scammer


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In 2014, author Rachel Ann Nunes learned that her 1998 novel, A Bid For Love, had been plagiarized in its entirety by someone calling themselves Sam Taylor Mullens. Re-titled The Auction Bid, the book was being sold on Amazon, and the "author" was not only promoting it, but sending copies to reviewers.

Unfortunately for the plagiarist, some of the reviewers had read Nunes's book. Although the plagiarist had switched the narrative from third to first person, the similarities were unmistakable.

Confronted by reviewers about the similarities, the plagiarist did not back down. She claimed she'd collaborated with Nunes; later, she claimed she was Nunes's niece and had given Nunes the idea for the book. She began harassing Nunes, using fake identities to send nasty messages on Goodreads and post one-star reviews of Nunes's novels on Amazon. When Nunes went public about the plagiarism, the plagiarist began harassing reviewers and others who spoke out in support of Nunes. (For screenshots of this and other harassment, see Nunes's blog post.)

The plagiarist was eventually identified (thanks to sleuthing by Nunes's supporters) as Tiffanie Rushton, a third grade teacher from Utah. It turned out that Nunes wasn't the first author Rushton had stolen from. Nor was intellectual property the only thing she'd filched: parents in her school district alleged that she had also used the real names of some of the children in her class as aliases to post reviews of her own and other explicit books.

In August 2014, Nunes filed a copyright infringement complaint against Rushton in Federal court. Nearly four years later, in March 2018, Nunes won the case, with a judgment requiring Rushton to stipulate that her infringement of Nunes's copyright was committed "willfully," and making Rushton liable for the maximum statutory penalty under copyright law of $150,000. Rushton was also ordered to provide and sign an apology letter, which she did (though not without a struggle).
So copyright law and the good guys prevailed--but only at a cost of a lot of time and a lot of money, not to mention untold emotional distress for Nunes. Most authors who find themselves in this position--and many will, plagiarism is a major and ongoing problem, particularly on Amazon--will not have the financial and emotional resources to take the kind of action Nunes did.

That's what the scammers count on.
 
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