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I first heard of Hurn Publications (that's a link to an archived version; the Hurn website is no longer online) not because of author complaints, but because of a contact from the company's founder, Meaghan Hurn.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

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.

October 22, 2021

A Critical Look at Scribd's Audiobook Reprint Contracts


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

This week I became aware that Scribd is engaging in a major push to acquire audiobook and ebook rights for already-published books, thanks to this post from Isobel Starling. 

Starling's email exchange with a Scribd representative raised some concerns:

There are definitely some questions here. Fortunately, I was able to get hold of several copies of the contract Scribd is offering for these deals. You can see it here. (I've redacted the author's name and other identifying information, and omitted the signature page. The contracts I saw were identical.)

Salient details:

- It's explicitly a reprint contract. Scribd is looking for backlist books.

- Per Clause 3, the grant of rights is exclusive, and includes worldwide rights in all languages for audiobooks and ebooks distributed on the Scribd platform. For distribution outside the Scribd platform, English-language rights are excluded for ebooks only (this appears to be intended to allow authors to keep any current ebook editions in publication--but it's complicated. See below).

- Print rights aren't mentioned anywhere in the contract: this is digital rights only.

- The grant term is 7 years (Clause 7), and includes distribution and marketing on the Scribd platform (Scribd is an all-you-can-eat subscription service) and outside the Scribd platform via retail channels (Clause 3. Again, though, see below).

- Per Clause 5, payment for distribution on Scribd is a flat fee (between $500 and $1,000 per book in the contracts I saw; the contracts were for multiple books). Unlike some other subscription services, or reading/writing platforms like Webnovel and Radish, Scribd doesn't pay for reader/listener interaction, so for your ebook and audiobook presence on the Scribd platform, the flat fee is all you get.

- Also per Clause 5, payment for distribution outside the Scribd platform is 25% of "Scribd's net proceeds" (not defined) once production costs have been recouped by such proceeds. This kind of back-end payment arrangement would be inappropriate for previously unpublished work, but it isn't unusual for reprint publishers that acquire backlist books; Open Road Media does something similar, for instance. 

Things to consider if you're offered one of these contracts:

- The grant of rights is pretty sweeping: worldwide rights in all languages. There's some limitation, in that English-language rights are excluded for ebooks (though apparently only if they're distributed outside of the Scribd platform; see my next point, below), and the contract doesn't allow Scribd to sublicense rights to others. But there's nothing in the contract to give you any say in or oversight of any translations that might be made, so you are ceding some control here. 

Of course, you have no guarantee there will actually be translations: the Scribd representative who responded to Isobel Starling only said that Scribd "has hopes" of doing translations at some point. So that's an unknown.

- The grant of rights is complicated and kind of confusing and also possibly internally contradictory. Here it is:


One way to read this is that Clause 3.2, which excludes English-language rights, is qualified by Clause 3.3, which claims rights to "all languages" for distribution on the Scribd platform, and Clause 3.4, which also excludes English but applies only to distribution beyond Scribd and only to ebooks. In other words, the English-language exclusion applies only where ebooks are distributed outside of the Scribd platform.

Another way to read this is that Clause 3.2, which excludes English from the all-languages grant of rights without specifying format --just "the Works"--is contradicted by Clause 3.1, which claims audio rights in all languages, and also by Clause 3.3, which claims the same for distribution on Scribd and also doesn't distinguish between formats.

Maybe I'm getting too deep in the weeds here, but this is the kind of thing that gives agents, and contract nerds like me, migraine headaches.

- How do you feel about not getting paid for readers' and listeners' interaction with not just one, but potentially two editions of your book? Other subscription services do provide such payment (though they may not accompany it with a flat fee or advance). If your work becomes popular on Scribd's platform, that's potentially a lot of lost income over the course of seven years. This is definitely an area where Scribd could reap the lion's share of benefit, and has the potential to devalue your rights.

The writers who contacted me to share their contracts told me that they are happy with their deals, which were for books they'd published long ago and were no longer promoting, or that provided them with an audio version they wouldn't have been able to afford to produce themselves. But while money upfront is tempting, whether a flat fee is adequate compensation is definitely something to consider.

- For distribution via retailers, you do get royalties--but how likely is it that Scribd will distribute outside its own platform? Scribd can and does distribute wide: in addition to the reprint contracts with individual authors, I saw a recent audio rights contract between Scribd and a small press (English-language rights only, with a higher royalty percentage). The small press confirmed to me that the audiobooks are being sold on Audible and elsewhere, and that it is receiving payments. 

According to the Scribd representative, though, wide distribution for this new rights acquisition push may not be a given. And if you look closely at the grant of rights above, you'll see that while it covers distribution of ebooks outside of Scribd, nothing at all is mentioned about distribution of audiobooks outside of Scribd. Remember, too, that this is an exclusive grant of rights. Are you prepared for the possibility that your audiobook will be available only on Scribd, and therefore only to Scribd subscribers?

- Royalties for wide distribution are paid only after production costs are recouped. As noted above, this isn't an unusual arrangement for reprint publishers. But the contract doesn't say anything about what those costs might include...narration and design, obviously, but what else? Ask for a breakdown, or at least an estimate, and be wary if that request is refused.

- Such royalties are paid on "net proceeds", but the contract doesn't define what those are. Purchase price less discounts? Purchase price less discounts less other expenses? This would be good to know.

- Clause 2.d. makes clear that Scribd doesn't need to consult you on production decisions. It also empowers Scribd to "make corrections to errors in the existing text." Hopefully this would just be on the level of copy editing, but I would want to know more about what kind of corrections and why.

- There are no freebies. The contract doesn't mention author copies.

- There's some confusion in the language of the Term clause.

First it's said that the contract will "commence upon the Effective Date" (the date the contract is signed) and continue for an "initial term" of 7 years. But according to the last sentence, the grant of rights will continue for 7 years "from date of first publication by Scribd". So what's the actual date on which the term of the grant of rights starts to run: contract signing or first publication?

- There's an arbitration clause (Clause 14). Be aware that when you sign a contract with an arbitration clause, you are waiving your right to go to court to settle disputes. 

To sum up: 

This doesn't strike me as a five-alarm "Writer Beware--run away!" situation. Scribd is not some sketchy startup (unlike many of the reading/writing apps that are also aggressively snapping up backlist books) and it is paying real money. But the lack of compensation for reader/listener interaction on the Scribd platform, which potentially devalues authors' rights, the uncertainties around translations and wide distribution, and the ambiguities in some of the contract language do suggest that careful consideration and caution are in order. 

I'll be interested to hear from other writers who have signed or who've been offered contracts by Scribd. Please contact me (in confidence). 

UPDATE 10/26/21: Since publishing this post, I've heard from other authors who signed with Scribd (for similar reasons to those mentioned above) and say they are happy with their deals. One writer told me that they were able to do some negotiating to get positive changes in the contract (they didn't provide more detail than that). So it appears that Scribd is willing to be at least somewhat flexible. 

October 15, 2021

Contest Alert: Bardsy's "The Short and Long of It" NaNoWriMo Prep Contest



Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

This post has been updated to reflect changes to the contest rules made by Bardsy. Scroll down to see an addendum.

Yes, folks, it's another of my posts about problematic writing contest rules.

I do a lot of these, and the issues are often pretty similar from post to post. But because writing contests are so popular, and poor rules language is so common, it never hurts to blast another warning out there.

Bardsy offers products and resources intended to help writers "Optimize Your Writing Process", including writing tools, templates, video courses, automated tips and prompts, and something called the "Bardsy Method". Bardsy members can publish their stories to the Bardsy Library, where they can be accessed and read by other members, or submit to Bardsy anthologies for possible publication. All of this is accessible for a monthly membership fee of $12.99.

Right now, Bardsy is running a "NoNoWriMo Prep Contest" called "The Short and Long of It". Writers can enter unpublished short stories of between 1,200 and 3,000 words. The winner will get a cash prize of $299, plus a free six-month Bardsy Elite membership (Elite membership normally involves an invite from Bardsy and a higher monthly membership fee). An unspecified number of finalists will receive a  50% discount on regular Bardsy memberships for six months (a prize, in other words, that they will have to pay to take advantage of). There's no entry fee. Notably, there's also no guarantee of publication--even though Bardsy does claim publishing rights.

And that's where the problem arises. Specifically, in the Additional Rules section of the contest guidelines:
 

There are several issues here. First, simply by submitting to this contest, you're granting publishing rights to Bardsy--whether or not you win or are declared a finalist.

This isn't unusual: many contests include such language as a convenience, because it spares them from having to contract individually with winners or anyone else they choose to publish. But once those decisions are made and the contest ends, there's no reason to retain non-winners' rights. If there's a sweeping grant of rights like this, it should be balanced by language ensuring that the grant expires at a certain point--sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, many contests don't bother, and Bardsy is no exception.

Second, the grant is royalty free, which means that if Bardsy makes use of your story beyond hosting it on its website, you will not get paid (more on that below). I don't think I need to editorialize on why this isn't optimal.

Third, the grant is perpetual, which means it won't expire for the life of copyright, and non-exclusive, which means you could publish elsewhere. But there's a catch. Any grant of rights, even a non-exclusive one, removes your ability to grant exclusive or first rights to anyone else. You will only be able to publish the story on a non-exclusive basis. This takes quite a few publication options off the table. Submitting to magazines? Original anthologies? Not unless they accept reprints. Remember, too, that this is a contest for an unpublished short story, with no guarantee of publication even if you win. Potentially, you've given up your ability to grant first or exclusive rights on an unpublished story that will remain unpublished--at least, by Bardsy.

Finally...see the second sentence of the paragraph? In addition to making explicit that Bardsy is claiming rights it may not use, it ensures that if Bardsy does publish or otherwise exploit your story, it doesn't have to attach your name: "Bardsy will have the right...to include or omit reference to the author." Your story could be published without your name, or even under someone else's name.

The right of attribution--to be named as the author--is a component of moral rights, which the US doesn't really recognize. Even so, this is, in effect, a waiver of moral rights.

All in all, if you're thinking of entering this contest, there are some serious issues to consider. But wait--there's more.

The contest isn't an isolated example of author-unfriendly legalese. Here's the grant of rights included in Bardsy's general user terms, to which you agree simply by using the various Bardsy services--including writing and story-creation tools and templates that are not downloadable and can only be accessed by logging into Bardsy:


Here, the waiver of moral rights is explicit (see the last sentence).

Also, while the language granting a royalty-free license to "use, copy, modify, etc." is fairly standard for sites that, like Bardsy, display user content (it's not intended to sneakily grab your rights, but to enable the site to broadcast and display that content), the paragraph goes beyond that basic set of permissions by giving Bardsy the power to sublicense your content to "partners" for publication and other uses, and "to profit from such uses of your Content". Not only can Bardsy freely sublicense your work to third parties without seeking your permission or approval, it can potentially make money from doing so... while you, having agreed that any use of your work will be royalty-free, get nothing--perhaps not even, since you've waived your moral rights, credit as the author.

How likely is any of this to happen? Maybe not very. However, if you agree to something that could happen, you should never assume it won't happen. Bardsy does market itself as a program for homeschoolers for $8.99 a month--a program that looks like regular Bardsy, just re-packaged with different promotional verbiage and a lower monthly fee.

There's also the principle of the thing. Why deprive writers of the right to have their names published with their writing? That, at least, is not a theoretical concern. In the one example of a Bardsy anthology I could find (apparently published only on the Bardsy website), writers are credited only with their first names and last initials, as if they were in some writerly 12-step program.

Always, always take the time to read--and be sure you understand--the fine print of contest rules and website Terms and Conditions. If ever you're confused as to the meaning of contest legalese, or want to report language you think is author-unfriendly, please contact Writer Beware.

UPDATE 10/25/21: In response to the discussion in this post, Bardsy has modified the contest rules.

Finalists will now receive a free Elite membership for three months. And the grant of rights has been amended to release the rights of non-winners 90 days after winners and finalists are declared, and to remove the language allowing Bardsy to publish without the author's name:
]

Bardsy's overall User Agreement remains the same, however, including the waiver of moral rights.

October 1, 2021

Another Reason to Just Say No to That Offer to Re-Publish Your Self-Pubbed Book


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

One of the identifying markers for the scores of publishing/marketing/fake literary agency scams that are super-aggressively soliciting self-published and small press writers these days is an offer to re-publish or "re-brand" your book.

The offers--which always come out of the blue, by phone or email, from companies you never heard of--vary. Your book isn't priced competitively, and we can do better. We want to represent you to traditional publishers, but first you have to re-publish or "re-license" your book to escape the self-pub "stigma". We'll pitch you to brick-and-mortar booksellers, but you have to have "book insurance" or "return insurance" that your current publishing platform can't provide. 

Of course, you must pay for these purported benefits. For simple re-publishing, the price tag can be relatively small (though only to get you in the door so you can be pressured to buy expensive marketing and book-to-screen services). For a larger fee, strategies to supposedly improve your book's appeal may be included in the offer: editing, re-formatting, a brand-new cover design (these may or may not be competently delivered: as many writers learn to their regret, their re-published books often contain more errors than the originals did). For even more money, a bouquet of marketing strategies may be added: video trailers, press releases, email blasts, social media advertising, internet radio interviews, book reviews (these offers are the most lucrative for scammers, since the so-called marketing is junk: cheap to provide, sold at a huge markup, and ineffective for book promotion even if adequately performed, which often it is not).

Deceptive promises, huge expenses, substandard quality, opening yourself up to aggressive sales pressure, not to mention the always-present possibility that the scammer will simply take your money and run: any one of these is reason enough to trash that email or block that phone call from the persistent "senior marketing consultant" or "executive literary agent" who is trying to sell you on re-publication. 

But there's another reason to just say no--and it could impact more than your bank account.

Suppose your book gets re-published, but you realize you aren't receiving royalties or royalty reports. Or there are errors that need to be corrected, or services you paid for that aren't being delivered, or you have concerns about quality. Suppose, when you start asking questions, your re-publisher stops responding. Suppose you discover that the email address you've been using no longer works, and the phone number you've been calling has been shut off. Suppose you look for your re-publisher online, and find that its website has disappeared. 

These are common situations. Re-publishing scammers routinely ghost writers they decide are inconvenient (or tapped out financially), and frequently shut down under one name as complaints accumulate, only to start up under another. Meanwhile, your book is still for sale all over the internet. 

Suppose, then, you decide to terminate your service agreement or publishing contract, get your rights back, and have your book removed from sale. Maybe there's language in the agreement or contract that lets you cancel--but how do you cancel if phone numbers are dead and all your emails bounce? Maybe there's no provision for termination by the author, something you didn't worry about at the time because you didn't think there would be an issue...but that means you can't go to retailers like Amazon with the argument that your copyright is being infringed because the company ignored your contractually-guaranteed right to terminate. 

Or maybe you never had a contract to begin with. Maybe your sales rep from the company that originally re-published your book moved to a new company and took you with them, claiming that a new contract wasn't needed even though your re-re-published book now carries the new company's name. (This really happened). 

What do you do? 

I'm increasingly hearing from writers who are in these situations. Ignored, ghosted, or contractually screwed, their work is for sale, but beyond their control. There's no clear way for them to get their books unpublished and out of their re-publisher's clutches. 

Some authors have told me they've managed, with much time and effort, to wrangle takedowns from Amazon. More often, though, they're informed that only the publisher can terminate a title listing: a Catch-22 if your re-publisher won't respond or has vanished without a trace. Other writers have tried to figure out who their re-publisher is using for fulfillment and go directly to that company--but it's not always possible to find this information, and the fulfiller may not be receptive in any case. Either way, begging Amazon or Ingram to deliver what your re-publisher won't is not something any writer should be forced to do.

Of course, all of these problems and do happen with real publishers. You know that if you're a regular reader of this blog. But several factors make the re-publication scams uniquely dangerous: 
  • Their overseas location (their purported US and Canadian business addresses and registrations are just for show), which insulates them from legal and law enforcement action from writers in other countries. 
  • Their elusiveness, with most actively concealing the identities of their principals and operating in their home country under entirely different names. For instance, PageTurner Press and Media, which aggressively solicits authors for re-publication and "re-branding", does business overseas as Innocentrix Philippines and presents itself as an outsourcing service. Bridgebooks, also located in the Philippines, claims to be an advertising and marketing firm, and solicits writers as four supposedly US-based companies: Chapters Media & Advertising, PaperBytes Marketing Solutions, Blueprint Press, and Quantum Discovery. 
  • Their flexibility: with trained staff in place and an established (read: endlessly duplicatable) business model, they can close down one business name and start a new one the same day.
  • Their willingness to lie, not just about the quality, benefit, and scope of their services, but about who they are: falsely claiming major publisher or movie connections, appropriating the names of legit but defunct companies, impersonating real publishers and agents.
Bottom line: if you succumb to an unasked-for pitch from a company you never heard of to re-publish or re-brand your book, you stand to lose much more than money. Writer beware, indeed.

September 17, 2021

#DisneyMustPay Update: Disney Is Still Not Paying


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

This past April, I wrote about writers' struggles to get Disney and Disney-owned publishers to provide unpaid royalties and missing royalty statements--in some cases, going back years--and the formation of the #DisneyMustPay Joint Task Force in response.

The problem: Disney has acquired many publishers and imprints over the years, along with their properties and contracts. In many cases, however, Disney is taking the position that while they've purchased the rights to those properties, they haven't acquired the corresponding obligations stipulated in the contracts...such as payment and reporting. From the Task Force website:
Creators may be missing royalty statements or checks across a wide range of properties in prose, comics, or graphic novels. This list is incomplete and based on properties for which we have verified reports of missing statements and royalties.
  • LucasFilm (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc.)
  • Boom! Comics (Licensed comics including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.)
  • Dark Horse Comics (Licensed comics including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.)
  • 20th Century Fox (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alien, etc.)
  • Marvel WorldWide (SpiderMan, Predator, etc.)
  • Disney Worldwide Publishing (Buffy, Angel)
Drawn from multiple professional writers' groups, the Task Force's mission is to identify and advocate for writers who are owed money and accounting. There has been movement since April: several writers--including Alan Dean Foster, who was the first to go public--have successfully negotiated with Disney and have been paid. BOOM! Studios, which holds licenses for multiple Disney-owned comic book and graphic novel franchises, has offered to work with the Task Force to resolve royalty issues for comics writers and other creators (though to date little progress has been made). And two additional important writers' organizations, WGA East and WGA West, have joined the Task Force.

This is just the start, though. Disney has not been pro-active in seeking out affected writers, and it has refused to post a FAQ on its website or provide procedures for resolution, leaving writers and their agents on their own to try and figure out what's going on and whom to contact. In many cases--especially for books published years ago--writers may not even be aware that their publisher was acquired or that their books have been published in new formats or editions.

Also, while a few higher-profile novelists have been paid, several lesser-known writers and their agents are still in negotiations with Disney. And although there has been movement on the novel front, for comic book creators there have been almost no resolutions.

Accordingly, the Task Force is reaching out to all comic book and graphic novel creators who are missing royalty payments and statements from their work on Disney-owned properties. From the recent press release:
“Writers, artists, illustrators, letterers, and other artists are valued members of the creative teams that produce art and literature that is enjoyed by millions,” said Mary Robinette Kowal, Task Force Chair. “We are inviting these talented artists to share their stories and we will fight for them to receive the money that is owed to them.”...

The Task Force’s goals are to ensure that all writers and creators who are owed royalties and/or statements for their media-tie in work are identified and that Disney and other companies honor their contractual obligations to those writers and creators after acquiring the companies that originally hired them.
How can you be part of the fight?

If you're an affected creator, or suspect you are, SFWA is hosting this form that you can fill out to let the Task Force know. The purpose of the form is to provide the Task Force with information so it can review your case and then follow up (not every case is something the Task Force can help with, unfortunately). All information submitted is confidential; nothing will be shared outside the Task Force without your permission.

Additionally, the Task Force strongly recommends that, regardless of whether or not you’re affected, you continue to seek timely royalty statements (when appropriate).

If you're a fan, use the hashtag #DisneyMustPay (the Task Force suggests some sample social media messages). Blog about it. Write about it. Post the press release on your website. The Task Force asks that you not boycott, as this would disproportionately affect creators who are being paid. But getting the word out, shining a light on the issue, is hugely important. Public pressure works: Disney is taking notice, as the resolutions reached by Alan Dean Foster and others show.

In closing: this is personal for me. The late Ann Crispin--bestselling author, Writer Beware co-founder, and my dear friend and fellow scam hunter--wrote for two Disney-owned media properties, including her bestselling Han Solo Trilogy and the novelization of Alien: Resurrection.As with other affected writers, Ann's estate has not received royalty statements and/or payments for some editions of those works.

I'll be following developments closely. Watch this space.

September 3, 2021

Very Weird Solicitation Alert: Monica Susan Main


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know I like the weird stuff. And this is definitely weird.

Several writers have recently contacted me about a strange snail mail solicitation (there are also a number of reports online, so clearly this is a sizeable mailing).

You can read the letter  yourself by clicking on the images, but if you have better things to do, here's a quick synopsis. 

The curiously old-school letter--complete with fake handwritten notes, just like that junk mail you got so much of before email spam was a thing--is addressed to you by name from someone you never heard of called Monica Susan Main, who claims to have met you at a conference (conveniently not specified).

Monica remembers the heartfelt conversations you two had about your dreams of becoming successful writers, and she's distraught about the current state of publishing--especially the influence of Amazon and the hordes of "hacks and talent-less [sic] crack-pots" who self-publish their "trash novels" via KDP. 

Not to worry: Monica has had a brainstorm!

What if you could vault yourself out of the "soul-sucking" "chaos" of Amazon and get instant credibility by co-writing a novel with a New York Times bestselling author? Wouldn't that be awesome???

Amazingly (or maybe not), Monica can offer just such an opportunity! A "long-reigning #1 New York Times Bestseller stemming back to the early 1980s" is looking to start a "James Patterson kind of writing 'empire'" that would release multiple co-written books a year. And you--yes, YOU!!!--could be one of those co-writers!

Of course, Monica can't tell you just who this bestselling author is. It's top secret! If you want to proceed, you even have to sign an NDA! But there's a very special video, just for you (it even has your name in the URL), and if you watch it, All Will Be Revealed. But hurry! There's only one more slot left to fill! If you don't click RIGHT AWAY, you'll miss the boat!

(Here's an earlier version of the solicitation, which pairs the co-authoring pitch with the shilling of Main's Living the Writer's Dream pamphlet--just $10!)

So who is Monica Main? According to her official website, she's "a serial entrepreneur with over 25 years of real-world experience in all types of businesses and investments." While there's nothing to suggest she has ever worked in publishing, she does claim to be "a Best-Selling Author in THREE Categories!" on Amazon (where you can be a bestseller with only a handful of sales if the category is obscure enough). She also runs several get-rich-quick-style satellite sitesretreats, and super-sekrit workshops. Whatever her actual credentials, she clearly has a doctorate in flim-flam.

If you're bowled over by Monica's snail mail letter pitch (or just curious about where the whole thing might go, like me), and type the personalized link on page 2 into your browser, you wind up here, with Monica and a video pitch. I watched so you don't have to: it basically reiterates everything in the letter, and concludes by inviting you to click on the link below the video. 

That link lands you at a second video, in which some dude named Robert "The Blade" Robinson--a "professional brand spokesman" who appears to have been hired for the purpose--makes the pitch yet again, and also details what happens next. Step 1: you sign an online NDA (conveniently present below the video). Step 2: you submit a writing sample. Step 3: All Will Be Revealed!

How could I resist? Using one of my burner names and emails, I signed the NDA, which took me to the writing sample page. To the accompaniment of yet another video (a woman claiming to be one of the chosen co-authors, though naturally she can't provide her name or the title of her book) I pasted in 500 words from one of my own novels, and clicked "Submit". That whisked me to a fourth video, in which, at the end of a long spiel about the fabulousness of this "incredibly rare" opportunity, "The Blade" closes the circle by inviting me to set up my "strategy session" with Monica Main.

He also provides the big reveal. The famous #1 New York Times Bestselling Author is Judith McNaught

I have to admit I was surprised--not just because there actually was a reveal (I was expecting more obfuscation, or possibly a demand for money in order to get the secret info), but because Judith McNaught is exactly what Monica Main and her video pitchman claim: a famous, bestselling romance author who has written a lot of books and has a devoted fan base. Definitely not what I expected. Also, in the fourth video "The Blade" goes into some detail about the writing and collaboration process, which--again to my surprise--sounded fairly credible, or at least comparable to how legitimate co-writing arrangements really work.

Looking closer, though (and you know I always do), some oddities appear. 77-year-old McNaught hasn't published anything since 2005. Her website is badly outdated, as is her Facebook page, where the last post was written in 2018. That's the same year a new McNaught novel, The Sweetest Thing, was announced, but the book has yet to appear (on Amazon, it's listed as publishing in 2045; even so, fans are still pre-ordering it). Worried fans are wondering why, and asking where in the world is Judith McNaught

Oddest of all: I could not find a single word about this co-authoring venture from McNaught herself or any official McNaught representative. 

It certainly seems plausible that a highly successful writer might want to set up a co-authoring franchise like James Patterson's. But wouldn't it make sense to handle this through their publisher or agent or business manager? Wouldn't they announce it? Why outsource such an important endeavor to someone like Monica Main, of whom the most charitable thing that can be said is that she is not someone with substantial publishing industry experience? Why the whole top secret schtick, the multiple layers of reveal, the absurd NDA? This is definitely not how things work with legitimate publishing projects.

What's really going on here? 

Being the cynical person that I am, I initially assumed the entire scheme was a figment, a take-the-money-and-run play of some sort (which of course may still turn out to be the case). But the "disclosing party" in the NDA writers have to sign to proceed into the scheme is LWD International Inc., a publishing company incorporated in April 2020, of which Monica Main is, basically, a one-woman band: CEO, Secretary, CFO, and Director. 

LWD International has filed several recent trademark applications, including two using the name of Judith McNaught: one for a mark, the other for "the category of downloadable series of fiction books". Both of the McNaught applications were submitted in May and July 2020 (note how close those dates are to LWD's incorporation), and both were registered in May 2021. 



The M.S. Main registration application, submitted in June 2021, is for "categories of series of fiction works, namely, novels and books". It's still pending.

So it looks like Monica Main is planning to become a publisher, and the McNaught co-authoring thing is a real endeavor of some sort (though the trademark description indicates that the books will be ebooks, rather than glossy hardcovers adorning bookstore shelves, as the pitch videos encourage writers to assume). 

The question remains, though: why would someone like McNaught put her publishing franchise in the hands of someone like Monica Main? 

I will go far for Writer Beware, but not so far as to subject myself to a 45-minute phone conversation with Ms. Main. So don't know the answer, at least not yet. But I will keep digging. McNaught's last-published book, Every Breath You Take, was repped by Suzanne Gluck at William Morris; I've reached out with a question, and will report back if I get a response. 

UPDATE: So, wow. It gets darker. Monica Main has a rap sheet.

A reader directed me to this 2007 article, which describes a Federal prosecution against Main and her husband for fraud. According to the article, more than 1,200 people signed up for a trading system sold by the Mains, and lost a total of $3 million. I looked the case up on PACER: the court ordered the Mains to pay a $9 million penalty plus the $3 million customers lost, and permanently enjoined them from engaging in any commodity or options trading.  

That's not all. 
The couple operated the fraud, which involved a bogus software program called Trade Pro and “boot camp” training seminars, from 2001 to 2005, according to the CFTC. Despite Monica Main’s false claims to clients that she was a millionaire, she actually lost money with the small amounts she traded, and she went bankrupt in 2003, according to court records.

Under the Commodity Exchange Act, the Mains should have informed customers about Monica Main’s bankruptcy and her felony conviction....

Fearing a loss of business, the couple failed to inform clients that Monica Main had been convicted of felony mail and wire fraud in connection with an advance-fee loan scam, according to court records.
The name cited in the article--Monica Schiera Main--is different from the name she's using for the Judith McNaught solicitation, but in this 2019 interview, which includes a photo, her bio admits to "a short stint in federal prison, a personal bankruptcy, and a devastating two-year civil lawsuit with the government".

Monica Main and her company, Success for Life, Inc., were also sued by InfoUp, LLC for allegedly infringing its intellectual property to promote her own book.


InfoUp won a default judgment in March 2021, granting it a permanent injunction, statutory damages, and attorneys' fees.

I have to give a shout-out to Bryan Young @swankmotron, who encountered Monica Main last April and, in a long Twitter thread, unpacked her unsavory past.

UPDATE 9/9/21: I'm digging deeper into the "Judith McNaught" trademark applications, and what I'm finding is...interesting.

The initial trademark application, made by Monica Main's company, LWD International Inc., on July 13, 2020, was refused on August 24, 2020 because "applicant submitted what appears to be an advertising display of book covers, and not the actual series of books applicant provides. Moreover, there is insufficient context to ascertain whether the goods depicted in the specimen are in fact a downloadable series of books".

Here are the referenced book covers, which incorporate the applied-for trademark, but otherwise look like they were purchased from a pre-made cover service. Also, one may not be able to judge a book by its cover...but the kinds of stories suggested by the titles and art don't exactly seem like a seamless fit with McNaught's previous work.


Responding to the application refusal, LWD's lawyer produced a new series of images that appear to show the books for sale online. Here's one of them.


If you click on the image to enlarge it, you'll see a URL at the bottom: www.judithmcnaught.net. This is not the URL of McNaught's official website. It leads here: 


Pretty cheesy, am I right? The three books do appear to be orderable from the website--but not from anywhere else; they aren't present on Amazon or any other retailer that I could discover. Also, see that smiley photo, which visitors will surely assume is McNaught herself? It's a stock image

(UPDATE: Sometime in October or early November--i.e., after I published this blog post--www.judithmcnaught.net was set to re-direct to www.judithmcnaught.com, McNaught's official website, which does not include any mention of the three new books. The .net site survives on the Wayback Machine.)

But wait, there's more. If you look at the top of the "Reign" image above, you'll see, in tiny print, "Paris Steel Books". I googled Paris Steel Books, and found this:


Looks an awful lot like the cheesy McNaught website, doesn't it? That's no coincidence. "Paris Steel" is trademarked by Living the Writer's Dream Co., another of Monica Main's companies. The "Steel" trademark application was submitted on June 21, 2020, just a couple of weeks before the "McNaught" one. As for Paris Steel herself, she's not just evasive, but nonexistent: her only web presence is this website, which, in another similarity to the McNaught website, is the only place her books (if they even exist) can be found. 

Why would a Paris Steel header appear on the order page of a Judith McNaught book? Well, if your trademark application got refused because you hadn't shown that the books you were touting as proof of your publishing venture were actually for sale anywhere--maybe because you'd registered a domain name but hadn't yet gotten around to building a website--you might hastily paste the covers into the order page of a website you already controlled, as a stopgap measure. I'm guessing that's what happened here. Another indication that the McNaught website has been sloppily adapted from the Steel website: the meta tags on the Judith McNaught order page still point to Paris Steel.  


Getting back to the trademark application...the August refusal also required clarification of whether the applied-for mark referenced "a particular living individual", and if so, instructed the applicant to provide "a written consent personally signed by the named individual." 

Here's the relevant section of the response by LWD's lawyer. 


And here's a screenshot of the written consent. Note the date: four months after the initial trademark application was submitted.

Anyone out there with a signed McNaught book?

On January 15, 2021, the trademark application was refused again, this time because the applied-for mark "identifies only the name or pseudonym of the author of a written work; it does not function as a trademark to identify and distinguish applicant’s goods from those of others and to indicate the source of applicant’s goods." 

The response to this new refusal apparently satisfied the USPTO examiners, because the mark was published on March 2, 2021, and registered on May 18, 2021. 

Whatever else one might make of all of this, or guess about what's really going on here, it's just very, very sad that the name of such a beloved author has been attached to such a sketchy, tacky, unprofessional venture. Judith McNaught deserves better.
 
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