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.

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: 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

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.

August 13, 2021

Scam Alert: TransMedia Agency

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

A quick warning about a new impersonation scam. 

I'm getting reports from writers who've received email solicitations from what appear to be real film companies. Here are a couple of examples:

Note the identical language. 

Roth/Kirshenbaum and Bluegrass Films are real enterprises, with real track records. So if the writer--who may be a bit dubious because of the out-of-the-blue contact and the poorly-written text--does a websearch, they'll learn that these companies actually do exist. There are some odd discrepancies: there's no "&" in Roth/Kirshenbaum, and Scott Stuber left Bluegrass for Netflix in 2017. Still, the realness of the companies themselves makes it easier for hopeful writers to dismiss any niggling doubts.

Of course, the whole thing is a bait and switch. The clue is the "trusted literary firm" that can "furnish" the screenplay that the writer undoubtedly doesn't have. After some back and forth, the writer receives this: 

"Trusted literary firm" TransMedia Agency*--aka the scammer that's running the whole scheme--has what's essentially a placeholder website, providing just enough web presence to deflect the suspicion that might arise if it had no website, but containing virtually no meaningful content. The ungrammatical text and generic, unverifiable "about us" information are both major warning signs.

The writer also receives a "Screenplay Agreement Form" with a lot of legalistic mumbo jumbo about warranties, security, limitation of liability, blah blah blah. It's all window dressing for this:

So TransMedia is guaranteed to get at least $5,000 for a screenplay it will never deliver, even if the writer smells a rat and doesn't hand over the installment payments. Not a bad payday for sending out a few emails and a fake contract.

As is the case for many scammers, TransMedia's Illinois address is a virtual office. Its LLC is registered in the name of Colin Carroll of 1063 Inverness Drive in Antioch, IL; most likely Mr. Carroll is just a beard, and TransMedia is really operating out of the Philippines. I would also guess that Roth/Kirshenbaum and Bluegrass Films aren't the only real companies that TransMedia is impersonating.

Remember, writers: REPUTABLE FILM COMPANIES DO NOT OPERATE THIS WAY. They don't contact you out of the blue. They don't refer you for paid services. You're safest if you treat ANY unasked-for solicitation as a potential scam.

* Not to be confused with this Transmedia Agency.

UPDATE 9/6/21: TransMedia is also soliciting in the name of Todd Phillips Productions. Some of the language is identical to the two solicitations above; note the addition of some fulsome flattery.

August 6, 2021

Scam Alert: Silver Ink Literary Agency / Editors Press and Media / Global Review Press

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Last week, the Authors Guild sent out this warning:

Writer Beware has been getting complaints about Silver Ink Literary Agency for some time. It's included on our list of more than 100 similar Philippines-based publishing/marketing/fake literary agency scams. 

The Authors Guild isn't the only group whose name Silver Ink has taken in vain. It has also faked emails from Penguin Random House... order to share an equally fake memorandum about PRH's supposed new submission guidelines... aid of lending false credibility to the editing and other overpriced and substandard services Silver Ink pushes on its victims. 

Here's what else Writer Beware has found out about Silver Ink Literary Agency.

Silver Ink also does business as Editors Press and Media. The evidence: identical website content (compare the content on their marketing pages), identical (and seriously ungrammatical) language in contracts and other documents, and the use of Heather Allen's name in faked-up emails from both scams. (Ms. Allen, who now works for Abrams, has posted an alert on her LinkedIn profile.) I've also had confirmation of the connection from a couple of the snitches who occasionally contact me to blow a whistle or rat out their competitors. 

Editor's Press is actually the original scam; its domain was registered in October 2019, while Silver Ink's came to life a year later, in October 2020. Whoever ported Editor's Press content over to Silver Ink's website slipped up in the proofing department: 
Like its mini-me, Editor's Press plays the impersonation game to bamboozle writers into paying for editing. Its chosen target for fakery is HarperCollins:

You can read more about Editor's Press's impersonation scheme here

Silver Ink also does business as Global Review PressGlobal Review is the baby of the bunch; its domain was only registered in April 2021. 

Again, there's identical content on the marketing page--including, amazingly, the same uncorrected proofing error noted above. Silver Ink and Global Review both have business registrations in Nevada, and share the same principal and registered agent, Sandra L. Herrera of 3996 Kettle Rock Ct in Reno. (Editor's Press is registered in Virginia, also to what appears to be a private individual.)

The owner of these ventures is Gary Serdeña, aka Shawn Serdeña, aka Shawn Gatewood. According to his Facebook profile, Shawn (the name he apparently prefers) is from Tacloban City in the Eastern Visayas region of the Philippines, and enjoys posting photos of himself conspicuously consuming the income generated by his author-fleecing ventures.

Shawn's personal FB feed includes many references to Editor's Press, such as this one on the occasion of the company's one-year anniversary, and this one from a couple of months ago celebrating a brand-new business location. There's even a ribbon-cutting video. Ripping off authors is lucrative! 

(UPDATE: Scammers like Shawn are among my most faithful followers. Shortly after I published this, Shawn deleted all the posts and video I've linked to in this article. He also appears to have deleted the original Facebook page for Editor's Press and Media [unfortunately not archived by the Wayback Machine], and created a new one [currently with almost no content]. Additionally, he has changed his name on Facebook and Instagram: he's now going by Denzel Agaton, and claiming to live in California [a claim somewhat contradicted by his many posts and check-ins referencing Cebu]. The URLs of his FB and Insta presence memorialize his real name, however, and you can still see him posing in front of the Editors Press and Media logo.)

Shawn is an interesting example of how these publishing/marketing/fake agency scams evolve and spawn. He has posted photos of various awards he has won; in addition to documenting the several names he uses, they show that he worked for Author Solutions (the progenitor of the scam phenomenon of which Silver Ink and its siblings are a part) and then for Innocentrix--the name under which scammer Page Turner Press and Media does business in the Philippines--before starting Editor's Press in 2019. 

Shawn can also be found on Instagram. He has two TikTok accounts.

Silver Ink currently has an F rating at the Better Business Bureau, due to unanswered complaints
Editor's Press fares slightly better, with a C-, but only because there have been fewer complaints for it to fail to answer. Global Review has no BBB listing, likely because it's new enough that complaints haven't yet started stacking up. 

Last but not least...I know I'm a bit of a broken record here. But the number one way to protect yourself against scammers like Silver Ink is to assume that ANY out-of-the-blue solicitation is a scam. 

Sound extreme? It's not. Reputable publishers and literary agents rarely reach out to authors directly. For scammers, on the other hand, it's their primary recruitment method. With Silver Ink and the more than 100 outfits like it aggressively trolling for victims, you are safest if you treat all solicitations as non-legit, at least until you've investigated (you can search this blog, or email me). 

Mistrust, and verify.

August 3, 2021

An Important Message for Writer Beware Email Subscribers

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

As of mid-August, the service that handles Writer Beware email subscriptions and RSS feeds, Feedburner, is terminating its email service.

Blogger, the platform I've been using for the blog, is very limited in functionality, and there doesn't seem to be any alternative to Feedburner that will work with Blogger and won't cost me an arm and a leg.

I'm working on a solution--as well as an overhaul and facelift for the Writer Beware blog. But this will take several weeks, and that unfortunately means you'll stop receiving Writer Beware emails sometime this month. Rest assured, however: a fix is underway and it's only a temporary interruption.

There won't be any interruption to the blog itself: I will continue posting all the latest news about the schemes, scams, and pitfalls that infest the writing and publishing worlds. 

Feedburner has disabled new subscription signups, so if you're not on the email list and would like to be added, please contact me. If you're already a subscriber, you don't need to do anything: you'll be automatically opted in to our new subscription service (whatever that turns out to be). 

In the meantime, our RSS feed still works, and you can always visit us on the web

Any questions, please let me know, and thank you so much for your support!

July 30, 2021

How Bad Contest Entry Rules Can be Mitigated: The Medium Writer's Challenge

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

That's right, boys and girls--it's another of my posts about hinky contest rules. 

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know I publish a lot of these. That's not because I like repeating's because bad contest legalese is depressingly common, especially in contests conducted by high-profile organizations or individuals, such as HBO's "Lovecraft Country" short story contest, or T.A. Barron's Once Upon a Villain flash fiction contest, or the Sunday Times/Audible Short story award, or any number of others. Because it's so common, though, it never hurts to put out another warning....especially when a contest offers the kind of prize money that's sure to attract droves of writers.

In a twist, though, I'm not just going to talk about greedy legalese, but also about how one contest sponsor responded to criticism and made it better. 

The Medium Writers Challenge is an especially rich contest, with a $50,000 grand prize, $10,000 for four finalists (one of the finalists will be the grand prize winner, so one person will actually win $60,000), and 100 honorable mentions who will each receive $100. 

To enter, writers choose a prompt, create an essay of 500 words or more, and publish it on Medium. A prestigious slate of judges that includes such luminaries as Roxane Gay and Natalie Portman will select four finalists, one for each prompt, and then choose the grand prize winner and the honorable mentions. The deadline to enter is August 24, 2021.

Moving on to the fine print, namely this paragraph of the official rules

I got several emails and some social media pings about this paragraph yesterday. The concern was with the license writers grant simply by entering the contest, the wording of which gives Medium "an irrevocable, royalty-free, worldwide, nonexclusive, sublicensable, assignable" license to do pretty much anything it wants with any entry, whether or not it's a winning entry. 

This kind of language is extremely common, especially, as I've mentioned, in high-profile contests. The intent isn't so much a nefarious scheme to steal writers' rights or bind them to eternal servitude, as it is a shortcut for contest sponsors, who don't have to fuss around with contracts for winners because they've already agreed to terms. It's very easy to mitigate such language--for instance, by releasing non-winning entrants from the license once the winners are declared--but, carelessly or lazily or just sharkily, depending on how many lawyers formulated the rules, many contest sponsors don't bother, even though it means that they retain rights they likely have no interest in and no intention of ever using. 

In Medium's case, though, they did take steps to mitigate. Note the second line of the paragraph, which limits the license to one year from the end of the contest period (presumably that's the August 24 deadline). In other words, this is not the perpetual license that some other contests demand: it has an endpoint, after which it expires.

Here's the interesting thing, though. Paragraph 10 didn't always read the way it does now. This is the original version, the one that got people upset:

Note the difference: there's no limit on the grant period. In this version of the contest rules, the license really is perpetual. 

Writers asked questions and spoke out on social media. To its credit, Medium took notice.
This is what can result when an organization re-thinks pointless legalese. I wish that happened more often.

Don't get me wrong. Medium's license language is still excessive, in my opinion, because there really is no reason for them to retain non-winners' rights once the winners are declared. Still, a year is better than forever.

Entrants also need to consider what they're granting if they do win. There's a lot of potential uses Medium can make of their work (it isn't clear to me that the license language limits Medium's use of entries in the way the third tweet claims), including creating derivative works and "incorporat[ing] the Submission, in whole or in part, into other works." $10,000 is a decent payday for that kind of grant. But is $100?

As always, read--and make sure you understand--the fine print.

July 23, 2021

Bad Contract Alert: ByteDance's Fictum Reading/Writing App

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Over the past year, I've gotten a flood of questions and complaints from writers who've been approached by reading/writing platforms or apps based in Hong Kong or Singapore. 

There's a growing number of these platforms, and they are aggressively soliciting for content, including on established platforms like Wattpad. While most of the solicitations target writers directly, agents are receiving approaches as well.

Some platforms appear professional, with contracts that are fairly reasonable and straightforward. Others...not so much. Last October, I wrote about the terrible contracts offered by A&D Entertainment and EMP Entertainment, two companies that are deputized to recruit for Webnovel.

A new player in the reading/writing app field is Fictum (domain registered just this past November). Available on Apple and Google Play, it's owned by ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, and is currently recruiting writers with existing published books, as well as writers willing to produce 200,000 words or more of new material for its Long English Story Project

For new material, Fictum offers both exclusive and non-exclusive contracts, with different levels of financial remuneration that are rather confusingly described here. You must first publish three chapters in order to apply for a contract; once you're contracted, you must fulfill punishing word counts and maintain a grueling schedule in order to earn. For the exclusive contract, for instance, you must publish at least 1,000 words a day in order to receive a "daily update bonus" of $200 per month. More words equal more cash: if you can bang out 100,000 words a month, you get $400. Time is money, though: you can't take more than four days off in a single month, and if you fail to produce for more than four days in a row at any time, you forfeit payment.

I've seen one Fictum contract, offered for an existing published book. You can view it here. To put it mildly, there are issues of concern.

- The Grant of Rights is non-exclusive and time-limited--but it is also irrevocable. In other words, you aren't stuck forever--but you have no right to cancel. 

There was originally a clause allowing the author to terminate for cause, but in the contract I saw, that clause had been blacked out. The deletion wasn't as effective as someone thought, though, because when I converted the contract to PDF, the excised words showed up:

This isn't much better than saying "no, you can never cancel". You'd have to wait a year, and you could only invoke the clause if not a single person had accessed your work in all that time (which might be hard to show, given that Fictum doesn't have to tell you how your work is performing--see below). Talk about crafting an option so that it practically never happens! Plus, if even if you were unfortunate enough to fulfill the requirements, you'd still be screwed, because you'd have to give money back to Fictum:

Let me know if you can make sense of that formula.

- You must waive your moral rights. Moral rights include the right of attribution (the right to be identified as the author) and the right of integrity (the right to protect your work from changes that would be prejudicial to the work or to you). If you waive your moral rights, you surrender both. Among other things, this means that your work could be published without your name, or under someone else's name.

Moral rights aren't really recognized in the USA, but they are important in other countries, and the Fictum app is distributed in multiple nations across the world.

- The initial 2-year term auto-renews (at the publisher's discretion; the author doesn't have a say), but the language isn't clear.

Does this mean auto-renewal for a single 1-year period? Or for successive one-year periods? It's not clear. This is the kind of thing that really needs to be unambiguous.

- There's no fixed payment schedule, payment terms are opaque, and Fictum doesn't have to give you performance data. 

The payment scheme detailed in the contract is different from what's described on the Fictum website, likely because this contract was offered for a finished book rather than for a serial work not yet written. Collectively called a License Fee, payment consists of a "fixed royalty" (equivalent to an advance); a "contingent royalty" (a KDP Select-style payment based on reading metrics), and a performance-based bonus granted "from time to time". 

The fixed royalty (based on word count--around $600 for the book this contract was offered for) is payable 20 days after contract signing or manuscript acceptance, whichever is later. It must be recouped by contingent royalties; once it is, those royalties become payable. 

So far, so good. However, the formula for calculating contingent royalties is not exactly transparent:

Nowhere is it explained what's meant by "effective reading time", or "unit rate", or how either one is calculated, except to say that it's at the publisher's discretion. Nowhere is there a payment schedule to indicate when and how often contingent royalties are paid once the advance is recouped, other than to vaguely promise, further on in the contract, "commercially reasonable efforts to inform [Fictum's] discretion from time to time." (Might this suggest that Fictum doesn't expect it will have to regularly pay out contingent royalties?) 

Equally concerning: nowhere is there any language requiring Fictum to share performance data, such as how many readers have accessed your work. 

Bottom line: beyond the advance, you have absolutely no idea what financial remuneration you might receive, and no guarantee that you'll get any insight into how your work performs on the Fictum app.

- The grant term is time-limited, but Fictum's right to use and exploit your work is not. There are two areas where this applies. First, even after the contract ends, your work will continue to be hosted on Fictum's servers in order to service customers who've downloaded it, which they do on a "perpetual" basis. (This is a common feature of such apps and platforms; it's not so much a "beware" as it is a "be aware".)

Second, Fictum claims copyright on derivative works created by it in connection with its exploitation of your rights as granted in the contract, and can continue to exploit these derivative works "perpetually". So what exactly is meant by derivative works? The contract doesn't really say.

A previous clause discusses derivative works in the context of promotion, such as creating short video clips based on a work's characters or setting. Other than this, though, "derivative works" is not defined, and the word "including" in the final sentence of the clause above suggests that such works may not be limited to promotional materials.

- Anything you write during the term of the contract is subject to first refusal by Fictum. Not just work related to the contracted work: anything.

This is an onerous requirement.

- And finally, language like this is never an encouraging sign:

There's a lot of competition out there in the reading app sphere, with dozens of companies vying for content. Most have little or no name recognition. That's not true of ByteDance, which likely gives it a substantial recruitment advantage. 

That's unfortunate, not just because of the unfavorable contract terms discussed above, but because the writers being approached by the apps, many of whom are teenagers or college students, are among the most naive and least savvy I've ever encountered (at least, judging by the many questions and panicked "I signed up without reading the contract, how can I get free" pleas I'm receiving). Considering how long I've been doing the Writer Beware thing, that is saying something. 

July 2, 2021

Alert: Scammers Impersonating Major Motion Picture Studios

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

I've written a number of posts about scammers impersonating literary agents and publishers. Writers should be aware that they're also impersonating major motion picture studios. 

Here's one example, from a scam that does business under at least three names: Orions Media Agency, Fox Media Studios Agency (note the way these scam names reference real companies), and PageTurner Press and Media. Despite their apparent US addresses and phone numbers, all are based in the Philippines (you can read more about the huge proliferation of overseas scammers here). (UPDATE: The scammers have added a new name: Experttell, aka Experttell Media.)

This is the initial pitch--which arrives, as always with this type of scam, out of the blue:

This is not the way things work: literary agents aren't "assigned" to represent you without your knowledge, and major film studios don't randomly stumble on books and reach out to agencies you never heard of, which then cold-call you. In fact, real agents only very rarely reach out to writers directly. For scammers, on the other hand, it's their main recruitment method. 

Any out-of-the-blue solicitation or offer should be treated with suspicion.

If the writer bites, they receive this. 

Note Allison's email address, which doesn't match Universal's email address protocol. It's always a good idea to search on this, and also on the email address itself; you can discover interesting things, such as that the domain was only registered this past March--not very plausible, given Universal Pictures' long history. In another revealing discrepancy, Allison Gray is a real person...but she works for Paramount.

"Allison" doesn't mention money. This is strategic: as any scammer knows, it's harder to say no when an offer is (purportedly) on the table. And money is definitely involved. The writer who responds with excitement to this INCREDIBLE OFFER learns that the "cinematic trailer" will cost them $3,500 (a cost the scammer may promise to share), and the "relicensing" of the book (there's no such thing) requires a further $1,099. 

I shouldn't need to say--again--that this is not how things work. If a film studio is interested in your work, they will pay you, not the other way around. Plus, the demand for your driver's license and passport suggests that it's not just your cash that will be stolen.

Here is the promised "pre-production agreement" (this time from another dba of this scam, Fox Media Studios Agency). "David Benson" does not appear to be an employee of Universal--or any film company. Allison Gray is cc'd, though at a different, and equally bogus, email address. Note also the identical scary pseudo-legal language at the bottom, which is likely intended to discourage writers from contacting people like me:

The money grab in this one is for the "Director's professional fee" as well as the supposed permits and clearances, which no doubt amount to several thousand dollars. Keep in mind that the writer has already paid nearly $5,000 for a (likely crappy) book trailer and the mythical book re-licensing.

Yet again, this is not how the industry works. Authors are never asked to bankroll their own films (at least, they're never asked to do so by reputable film companies). To the contrary: if a film of your book has been greenlighted, you will previously have received a considerable sum of money.

A final word. It's every writer's dream to have their book made into a movie. But the hard truth is that this is among the rarest of all outcomes of publishing a book. The vast majority of books--even very successful ones--never sell or option film rights. Where they do, it's via real, reputable agents or entertainment lawyers with track records that can be verified--not unknown parties who contact you out of the blue. 

Remember: solicitation is the number one sign of a scam. And there are more scams aggressively soliciting authors than ever. Be careful out there.

UPDATE 8/7/21: The scam is also soliciting as Netflix. Some of the language in the solicitation below is identical to that of the first fake Universal email above; note also the identical scary disclaimer in italics, and the fact that, although this came to the author as a direct solicitation and not through the filter of a fake agency, the scammers were too careless, or too lazy, to remove the references to "your agency".

As they often do, the scammers are using the name of a real person--except she's an actress, not a Netflix executive.

UPDATE 9/2/21: The scammers have added a new name: Experttell (aka Experttell Media), which is sending out email "offers" from Warner Bros. that are identical to the emails above.

June 25, 2021

Eli Bear Company, Star Alley Press: Two Writer Beware All-Stars Return With New Ventures

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Among the interesting phenomena of the universe of failed and dodgy people in and around writing and publishing (at least, interesting to me) is how often they just can't quit it. 

Agents outed for scammery start new agencies under new names. Ditto for disgraced publishers. This is one of several reasons why it's so important to know who owns and works for publishers and agencies, and why it's problematic if that information isn't present on company websites.

Here are two individuals previously covered on this blog who appear to be attempting a comeback.

Formerly: Genius Media
Now: Eli Bear Company

Wid Bastian, aka Widstoe T. Bastian, was the founder of Genius Media, which--among other activities--recruited writers to participate in various themed box sets. In exchange for a buy-in of $750, writers were promised placement on the USA Today bestseller list plus a pro-rated share of sales income, the bulk of which was to go to charity. 

But it was all a bait-and-switch. Via creative accounting, the projects were made to show a loss--so there were no donations and no royalties, and the only person who received any money was Bastian himself. This was not out of character: Bastian, it turned out, was a convicted felon, with a long history of embezzlement, money laundering, and bankruptcy fraud. 

You can read my December 2019 writeup of all of this here

Fast forward to today. Thanks to a tip from an alert Writer Beware reader, I learned that Bastian has started a new writing-focused business: Eli Bear Company, which provides copywriting and content writing (examples of its stylings can be seen here). Bastian lives in Utah, but it's no accident the business is incorporated in Wyoming. 

The company was initially incorporated in November 2019--just before the sh*t with the box sets hit the fan--as Genius Publishing Inc. (note the similarity to Genius Media, Bastian's box set promo company), and switched to its current name in March 2020. The Eli Bear domain name was registered shortly thereafter, in May 2020. 

It's interesting timing, given that Bastian filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in January 2020...

...and received a bankruptcy discharge in May 2020, releasing him from personal liability for most of his debts. Creditors included a number of box set participants.

Bastian is nothing if not a multi-tasker: in addition to the writing-focused Eli Bear Company, there's the real estate management Eli Bear Company, which promises to buy your crappy house for cash and solve all your annoying landlord problems.

Not surprisingly, Bastian's name doesn't appear anywhere on any of these websites. There is, however, a bear.

Formerly: Filles Vertes Publishing
Now: Star Alley Press

Myra Fiacco started Filles Vertes Publishing in 2016 or 2017. As is often the case with small press founders, she didn't have an abundance of relevant professional experience. 

FVP managed to publish just 18 books over the course of four years, with big, irregular gaps between pub dates. While you don't want a small press to bang out books willy-nilly, author mill-style, a slow and irregular publishing schedule can also be a warning sign. And indeed there was trouble at FVP, as the author complaints I began to receive in 2020 indicated: non-payment of royalties (of long standing), multiple missed pub dates and deadlines, poor communication, contract breaches, and more. 

Authors began demanding their rights back (for several, Fiacco attempted to impose onerous liability releases and confidentiality terms). FVP staff departed en masse (some were asked to sign multi-page NDAs). I unpacked the whole saga in this blog post in August 2020. Less than three weeks after my post went live, FVP closed for good.

Fiacco wasn't done, though. As I recently learned via a tip from another Writer Beware reader, she has started a new publishing venture called Star Alley Press. Star Alley's focus is "Hollywood, film, TV, stage, and other performing arts", and its business plan is unusual:

Fiacco's name doesn't show up on Star Alley's website, domain registration, LinkedIn page, or the press release for the single forthcoming book (and there's no reference to Star Alley on Fiacco's own LinkedIn page). But Star Alley's business registration tells the tale:

Worth noting: Star Alley was incorporated just a month after FVP closed down--allegedly without paying staff or authors the salaries or royalties they were owed. Star Alley's current book offering was originally contracted to FVP; according to former staffers, work had already started on it when FVP folded.

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