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.

February 5, 2021

Pique Literary: Unmasking a Fake Literary Agency


This is an expanded version of a Twitter thread I published last weekend--but not everyone is on Twitter and there have been new developments, so I'm amplifying it here. 

You'll find this post useful not just as an amusing account of unmasking a fraud, but as a series of tips on what should ring warning bells when you're evaluating an agency's website.

******

On Sunday morning, an alert writer DM'd me about a new agency promoting itself on Twitter: Pique Literary. 

 
That caught my attention: reputable agents don't charge upfront fees. So I looked into it. Spoiler: Pique Literary no longer exists, so I can't provide any links, just screenshots. 


Pique gets props for spelling "pique" correctly. But the administration fee was only the beginning of the red flags I found. 

1. The fee. 

Only £10 ($14 US) but as noted, reputable agents/agencies don't charge such fees, and they are always a red flag. Even if small, they can represent a considerable income stream for a busy agency, and can be an incentive to rake in as many submissions as possible, even if the agents aren't actually interested in the manuscripts.

Bonus red flag: Pique's bizarre rationalization of the fee. This is from the FAQ page.
As absurd as this is, it's also a rather clever spin. Yes, you have to give us cash, but we aren't trying to make money here--in fact it's TOTALLY IN YOUR INTEREST because it will help us give your deathless prose the attention it deserves! And guess what! Paying us isn't just helping you, it's helping hungry people! Which local food bank was that again? Never mind.

2. Agent bios that either didn't cite any publishing or agenting experience, or made vague claims that could not be verified.

Agent names and biographies are definitely something you want to see on an agency website--they make it possible to assess the agents' competence and experience. "Agent" is not an entry-level job: it's a skilled profession that requires specialized knowledge (of publishing contract terms, for instance) and contacts within the publishing industry. 

Previous positions in publishing, or working or training with another (reputable) agency: this is the kind of resume you want an agent to have. People who come to agenting without that professional background are at a significant disadvantage...which means that, as a client, you will be too. Be wary also of non-specific claims like "Agent X has worked for multiple publishing houses" or "Agent Y interned with a successful agency". Anyone can make such statements, whether they're true or not--or whether the publishers or agencies are reputable or not.


In all three of the Pique agent bios above, you can see this sort of vagueness at work. No experience mentioned, or experience mentioned but impossible to confirm due to the lack of details. Also, Daniel's and James's photos look awfully headshotty for a small agency website. I ran all of them through an image search, which turned up nothing (more on that below).

3. Other than the Pique website, not one of the Pique agents--including founder Paula Wellington--had any internet presence.

Zero on a websearch. Zilch on Publishers Marketplace or QueryTracker--two excellent sources of agent information. If an agent has made sales, there should be some trace of them on the internet. Not all agents/agencies have super-high web profiles, and a brand-new agent still building their client list may not have much web presence. But for an entire agency's staff to turn up empty on a search is definitely suspicious.

4. No client list, no mention of sales.

Who an agent/agency represents, and what--and where--they have sold are really important, not just for assessing the agent/agency's competence and standing, but for evaluating whether it's the right agent/agency for you. Where an agent or agency has placed books is a good predictor of where they will place them; if your goal is one of the big houses, a track record of placements mostly with small presses probably isn't a good fit (especially if those presses primarily work directly with authors: you hire an agent to get you through doors you can't open on your own, not to approach publishers you could have submitted to yourself.) 

Most reputable agencies prominently feature client and especially sales information. It's a form of advertising. 

New agencies may still be chasing clients and sales. So a new agency's lack of sales--assuming it really is new and not just pretending (see Red Flag #5)--isn't necessarily a warning sign, especially if the agents have the right background and experience. But there should at least be some indication of whom they're representing. The complete absence of any of this information on Pique's website is another red flag.

5. Pique did appear to be new--at least, judging by its domain registration. But was it? 

According to Pique's domain registration, it was less than a month old.


Yet throughout the Pique website, there were references to "restructuring", "rebranding", and "working through the pandemic" (see the first image above, also the rationale for the administration fee), and the agents' bios mentioned clients--all of which would seem to indicate an agency that had been in operation for months, if not longer. Could it have been operating under a different name? If so, that information wasn't present anywhere. Why not?

This kind of conflict/confusion is another red flag. It also points up the importance of trying to verify what an agency says about itself.

6. A curious lack of transparency around the agency's origins and history.

Not all reputable agencies provide detailed histories, but if they do, they shouldn't suggest that there is something to hide. 

Founder Paula Wellington did address the agency's background in her bio, which was as specifics-challenged as those of her fellow agents:

Which agency did she start working with in 2006? What was the name of the "small agency" she founded in 2009? How did it "evolve" into Pique (apparently less than four weeks ago)? There's no reason not to provide this information...unless there's something you'd rather not say. Some sort of controversy or scandal or legal trouble, for instance. Or a terrible track record. 

Or maybe you're just lying.

******

As mentioned, I posted most of this as a Twitter thread. Shortly after I did, Twitter detectives went to work.

Suspecting a stolen or stock image, I'd run an image search on the Pique agent photos, but turned up nothing. Smarter people than me figured out why: at least two of the images had indeed been stolen--but they had also been reversed, manipulated, and treated with a black-and-white filter in order to foil search engines.

Agent Marta's photo actually belongs to book YouTuber The Book Leo.


And Founder Paula's photo is actually Cynthia Figueroa, featured in a recent news article about her appointment as Philadelphia's new deputy mayor for children and families.


In other words, Pique Literary had moved out of the realm of "sketchy agency you maybe want to avoid" and into the land of "outright fraud". 

Just a couple of hours after being exposed online, Fake Founder Paula vanished.


Minutes later, so did Pique's website:


You couldn't ask for a more compelling admission of a scam.

******

So what was Pique's endgame? Whoever was behind it went to quite a bit of trouble to create a fictitious website, manipulate  stolen photos, etc.--though in the end, they didn't do enough to withstand a close look. 

Perhaps they intended to sit back and collect the admin fees. £10 doesn't seem like a lot, but for a busy agency receiving 50 or 100 queries a week, it could create a nice income stream. A one-person operation could easily impersonate four agents, using fake email addresses and canned  responses, putting clients off with delays, excuses, and fictitious submissions. Or who knows, maybe they really would have made submissions, and even managed to place a few books with smaller publishers. That would just have been gravy, enabling the scam to last a bit longer than it otherwise might have.

Or did Pique intend to steal manuscripts? Theft is a huge fear, especially for aspiring writers, but while you can never say never in the publishing biz, it really is extremely rare--at least, before a work is published. Even scammers almost never do this, mostly because it's way more trouble to steal someone's manuscript and pretend it was written by someone else than simply to con the writer directly. 

On the other hand, there is a thriving niche in the self-publishing world of people who pay cheap ghostwriters to create books that they then publish under their own names (this niche is largely invisible but occasionally bursts into view, usually not for happy reasons). It's conceivable that Pique could have planned to make additional money by selling manuscripts on to dishonest ghostwriters who ply their trade on Fiverr and similar sites.

Regardless, we'll never know--and really that's a good thing. For anyone who paid the admin fee, I encourage them to file a dispute with their credit card company or PayPal to get their money back. 

Most sketchy agencies won't turn out to be actual scams--they may simply be amateur, marginal, or delusional. But in terms of time-wasting and career damage, the bottom line can be pretty similar, whether you sign up with an agent who hasn't the skills to perform or an agent who is only interested in how much money they can cheat you into handing over. That's why, when a new agency comes along, or you discover an existing one you haven't heard of, it's so important to evaluate it as critically--and dispassionately--as you can. 

The red flags I've identified above should help. And, as always, you can message or email me to find out if I've heard anything. 

January 29, 2021

Vanity Press Storm Warning: Waldorf Publishing


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

A couple of years ago I featured Waldorf Publishing in a post about a manuscript contest it was running, which was replete with red flags--not least of which is that Waldorf is a vanity publisher. At the time, it was charging a menu of fees, from which authors could pick and choose:

In 2019, Waldorf switched to a book purchase requirement: authors were required to buy 50 or 100 books, "to ensure us that Authors are participating in marketing and actively promoting their book". Possibly it won't surprise you to learn that there is nothing on Waldorf's website or in its publicity materials to suggest that fees are involved.

Waldorf is owned by Barbara Terry, who describes herself as "America’s Favorite Auto Expert, CEO, Spokesperson, Author, Off-road racer, Columnist, Television Host, Marketing and Public Relations expert". The company appears to depend heavily on unpaid interns for staffing (at least one of whom did not have a happy experience); this may explain the quality of its covers, some of which you can see here. For a time, in addition to pay-to-play publishing, it sold author services a la carte.

Recently the company has re-branded as Waldorf Publishing, Marketing and Public Relations--the marketing and PR being provided by Barbara Terry Public Relations Group, which promises MAXIMUM IMPACT without providing any examples to illustrate the claim (and no indication as to whether these new services entail extra cost for Waldorf authors). Ms. Terry has also started several spinoff businesses: Waldorf Bookstands LLC, which "provides books on spinner display stands to businesses all around the United States" and has no web presence other than a single mention on an investment website; Shaggy Pup, a distribution company focusing on "libraries and school curriculum" that also seems to be on pause (its Facebook page hasn't been updated since January 2020, and clicking on its webpage URL produces a 403 Forbidden notice); and Waldorf Book Fairs, whose website is currently blank.

Other business ventures undertaken by Ms. Terry include Dream Coast Films, a production company she established in 2013 that doesn't appear to have ever gotten off the ground, and Master Media Class, a short-lived media training course she co-founded in 2020 with two Waldorf authors. 

Over the past couple of years, complaints trickling in from Waldorf authors and contractors suggest a company under stress: unfulfilled marketing promises (such as paying for Kirkus Indie reviews that were never delivered), books paid for and not received, under-reported sales, and unpaid royalties. You can see additional complaints in the comments thread on my original Waldorf post (Ms. Terry threatened at least two of the complainants with legal action) and in other places online.

Recently, though, signs of trouble have increased. 

This document from the Fort Bend, TX library system appears to be a request to terminate a contract won by Waldorf in October 2019, through which Terry's distribution company, Shaggy Pup, was supposed to supply "high demand" books to Fort Bend libraries. The document details numerous issues and lapses on Waldorf's part; for instance:


This past December, a comment appeared on my original Waldorf post from a liquidation company that claimed to have acquired a large number of Waldorf books. I followed up with a request for more information and got this response, which I've been given permission to share:


A defaulted storage unit filled with thousands of books? Not good. 

Waldorf is also shedding contracts. In September of last year, a number of Waldorf writers received emails informing them that their books were being discontinued due to low sales. (A brief brouhaha erupted when a former Waldorf staffer contacted terminated authors to offer her own formatting services should they wish to re-publish, prompting the company to send out another email declaring that the former staffer was "misleading [authors] of communications from Waldorf Publishing" and that the matter had been referred "to our attorney as we speak.")

Then, last week, I began hearing from more Waldorf authors who'd received termination emails in early January, this time from a lawyer apparently retained by Waldorf. Just like in September, they were informed that their books were being discontinued due to low sales. But this time, money was involved. 


Now, there are two ways to read this email. The first is that two separate things are being offered here: one, the return of "physical and electronic" rights, and two, a suite of (dubious--see below) extra services. Saying yes to the first offer, which does not involve a fee, doesn't mean you have to accept the second, which has a price tag of $350.

The other way to read it--especially if you are in shock at suddenly discovering your book is being axed, or your eyes glaze over at the sight of legalese--is that the return of rights is contingent on handing over $350 for a bunch of services you didn't ask for. Which is, in fact, exactly what all the authors who contacted me about this email assumed. 

Poor wording, or deliberate ambiguity? Hmmm.

As for the services writers are being asked to buy, they are at best dubious, and at worst undeliverable. The shoddy quality of much of Waldorf's design and formatting work is not a huge recommendation for the reformatting offer--plus, there's no guarantee it would result in a file that was usable by another publisher or publishing platform, all of which have their own requirements and protocols. The new ISBN might not be especially useful either; ISBNs uniquely identify the purchaser, and if Waldorf bought them, they are Waldorf ISBNs just as much as the ones on the books that are being discontinued. 

As for the offer to "release and reassign" audiobook rights...Waldorf audiobooks are published through Audible/ACX. ACX contracts extend for seven years, can't be terminated (except by Audible), and can't be reassigned without written permission from Audible (and Audible is highly resistant to such requests). So it's unclear how--or if--Waldorf could accomplish this. 

I can't say for sure that Waldorf is in the kind of death spiral that offloading contracts and abandoning stock often indicates for small presses. What's clear, though, is that Waldorf's business ventures are in disarray, and it is not just getting rid of books, but trying to monetize the process by making a few bucks on its authors on their way out the door. 

Writer beware.

January 15, 2021

Pay-to-Play as Pedagogy? The Creator Institute and New Degree Press


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

A few months ago, I began getting questions about a self-described hybrid (read: fee-charging) publisher called New Degree Press (NDP). Reported fees were in the $5,000 to $8,000 range, which paid for a suite of publishing services including editing, formatting, and publication via KDP and IngramSpark.

So far, so unremarkable. But there's something that sets NDP apart from more familiar pay-to-play publishing ventures: although it presents the appearance of an independent publisher on its rather sparse website (including soliciting submissions), NDP is in fact the publishing arm of The Creator Institute, an entrepreneurship course created by Georgetown University professor Eric Koester.

THE PROCESS AND THE PUBLISHER


Likened to a master's degree or MBA, the Creator Institute (CI)--dubbed the bSchool Program (for Book School)--enables students to "learn-by-doing--enabling you to discover your passion, develop your expertise and establish your credibility through the creation and launch of your very own book." Method and goals are summarized thus:
Students take a two-semester, experiential learning course that teaches the principles of developing and launching a venture using a nonfiction book as the “product.” The students apply all of the cutting-edge entrepreneurship principles — ideation, customer discovery, hypothesis testing, persuasion, startup marketing, startup sales, public relations — but do so with a product that is lower risk than many “startup ventures.” It offers long-term credibility and expertise to the student even if they do not wish to pursue an entrepreneurial venture immediately after college. Students are trained in the creator mindset, which increases their chances of eventually becoming a successful founder.
Both the CI and Prof. Koester have won awards for innovation, and there are offshoots of the program at colleges across the country.

Primarily targeting college and high-school students, the bSchool Program proceeds in two phases, taking a total of around 10 months. The first phase consists of lectures, group discussions, and work assignments geared to producing a complete book manuscript. The second phase focuses on publication of the ms. via New Degree Press.

Publishing with NDP is not compulsory; students who complete the first phase don't have to move on to phase two. It appears, though, that most people do.

Co-founded in 2017 by Prof. Koester and Tucker Max of Scribe Media, NDP is prolific. To date it has issued 540 titles, according to Amazon, more than half (311) published in 2020 alone. In 2021, projected output will nearly double, according to Creator Institute's Spring 2021 Program Overview (page 10). Many of the books are under 200 pages--NDP mss. average 25,000 words for a rough draft and around 30,000 words for a finished manuscript--and the vast majority are nonfiction, with a small number of fiction titles scattered in.

Three author "cohorts" sign up with CI annually, each consisting of well over 100 writers. Georgetown University students can attend in-person sessions--or at least they could; I don't know what impact the pandemic might have had on this--but the bulk of the learning is virtual, via an open version of the course. Writers receive one-on-one attention from editors and designers, and there is a roster of outside speakers, but much of the instruction appears to come in the form of recorded lectures and workshops, as well as weekly meetings and community discussions between the writers themselves. Class materials are template-heavy, based on examples I saw, an approach that I imagine is helpful for non-writers, but for creative writing, including creative nonfiction, not so much (this was acknowledged by NDP editors who contacted me).

CI/NDP promises that "All the developmental editors working with the program are professional editors who have worked on numerous books" (Overview, page 10). Neither Creator Institute nor NDP identify their staff, so it's difficult to assess this claim. I have managed to glean the names of several editors, however, and while some do show substantial experience, others have much less (in some cases, per their LinkedIn bios, they don't seem to have worked as editors at all prior to being hired by NDP). Brian Bies, Head of Publishing, does not appear to have had any professional publishing or writing experience before assuming his position, other than going through the CI program and publishing his own book through NDP. (Here's his explanation of economies of scale in publishing, aka "batching", which he compares to dining at Benihana.)

Writers are expected to do a lot of heavy lifting over the course of the publishing process--from drumming up support for their crowdfunding campaigns (see below), to providing ideas for cover design (including creating mock covers), to doing some of the work of layout. Authors get assistance in developing "a 3-4 month automated marketing plan" (Overview, page 6) but must handle the actual implementation (and expense) themselves. Authors are also encouraged to write back cover blurbs for each other, and are responsible for ordering books to mail out to campaign backers (NDP reimburses them for this).

The final work of uploading and publishing the finished books to KDP and IngramSpark is entirely done by authors.

THE MONEY

Participants in the manuscript-creation phase of the open (virtual) version of the program pay just $249 ($499 for non-students) to cover the cost of their developmental editors. The big bucks don't kick in until the publishing phase.

In its first couple of years, CI held publishing expense down to "less than $1,200 per author," defrayed by a "donor grant" (aka Bank of Dad). Times sure have changed. The price tag now is $5,000, $6,000, or $8,000, depending on which plan students choose. These costs were laid out as flat fees last year, but they've been re-formulated in the Spring 2021 Program Overview to include cost breakdowns (page 6).


There's also a $300 deposit to cover production of a promotional video (refundable if you choose the $8,000 option and make your goal).

To defray these hefty fees, writers can choose to "self-fund", or they can raise the money through a crowdfunding campaign. Most choose a campaign.

Conducted on Indiegogo, the campaigns all follow a similar template (a cookie-cutter approach that has been noted by observers), featuring pre-orders (suggested softcover price: an eyebrow-raising $39) and other perks, such as "become a beta reader". The goal is to engage in a prelaunch effort to sell 125-250 books, in order to "build your audience in advance of a formal book launch" (Overview, pages 7-8). While any professional writer will tell you that building an audience involves getting people you don't know to buy your books, for NDP, pre-sale audience-building primarily relies on people to whom you are already connected. This isn't emphasized in the 2021 literature, but it's explicit in last year's Overview ("Most presales come from friends, family, coworkers, classmates, alums, and people you’ve interacted with through your book-writing process" [page 13]) and was confirmed by writers who contacted me, some of whom said they found this leveraging of relationships uncomfortable.

Technically, writers who reach their crowdfunding goals don't have to pay out of pocket--something CI makes sure to emphasize throughout its literature. And indeed, a large number of campaigns do succeed in raising or even exceeding the desired amount of cash.

What about those that don't, though? CI encourages writers to believe this is unlikely: "96% of authors reach their campaign targets" (Overview, page 13--an estimate that's a step down from the prior year's Overview, which assured students that "Creators Program alums have, to date, all succeeded in their targets." [page 12]). But in fact it's very easy to find campaigns that have missed the mark, in some cases by quite a considerable amount of money.

Might there be substantial incentive for writers to chip in themselves to make up the difference? I've heard from NDP writers who say they did just that. So did this writer. Even a brief survey of NDP writers' campaign pages indicates that self-contributions are not at all uncommon. (Writers seem to be encouraged to help fund campaigns by other NDP authors as well--a practice that appears to involve a certain amount of quid pro quo.)

THE CONTRACT

Here's where things get really murky.

NDP repeatedly identifies itself as a publisher (specifically, a "hybrid publisher"). NDP titles carry NDP ISBNs; Amazon and other retailers list it as publisher, and its name is printed inside the books and on back covers.

It also issues a Publishing Agreement. That agreement, however...well...here's one from September 2020.
Almost nothing you'd expect to appear in a publishing agreement is present here. Grant term? Nope. Copyright? Nada. Warranties and indemnities? Absent. Termination or cancellation? Never mentioned. Publisher's signature? Apparently not deemed necessary. As for rights and royalties, there's only this...


...which merely affirms a basic truth about intellectual property (unless they surrender copyright, authors always "retain full ownership rights"; it's what allows them to grant publishing rights in the first place), and doesn't explicitly license any rights to NDP or say how or when royalties will be collected.

Of course, NDP doesn't need to license rights, because it doesn't actually publish anything. Writers themselves upload their finished books to KDP and IngramSpark, at which point they agree to those platforms' rights licenses and payment terms. Presumably that's why there's no license language in NDP's agreement, and no payment stipulations other than confirmation that authors keep all platform income (NDP does not take a share of sales income).

But do you see the problem here? Publishing agreements should not require you to presume. More to the point--if NDP leaves it to authors to do the actual publishing, why have a publishing agreement at all? Surely a service contract--which NDP's agreement in fact resembles far more than it does a publishing contract--would be more appropriate.

As it is, NDP's publishing agreement leaves important issues unaddressed, protecting neither the author nor NDP itself, and potentially setting everyone up for awkward outcomes.

For instance, suppose an NDP writer decides they want to seek a different form of publishing. They can unpublish their book from KDP and IngramSpark, per the terms of those licenses--but what about the NDP publishing agreement, which has no stated term and no provision for cancellation by the author (or even by NDP)? Presumably (that word again) the author could ask NDP to cancel it--but if NDP refused, or became unreachable, what then? How would a potential new publisher, or even another self-publishing platform, feel about an existing interminable publishing agreement, even one as vague as NDP's? At the very least, it would be a complicating factor.

Or suppose it turns out that an NDP writer plagiarized portions of their book, or included content that someone deems defamatory, and lawsuits are filed against NDP as well as the author. With no author warranties, and no indemnity language, NDP is totally exposed. Might it claim that it wasn't actually the publisher, since there was no explicit license of rights? Courts might be skeptical of that argument, given NDP's repeated identification of itself as a publisher, not to mention its ISBNs and the presence of its name inside its books. Self-publishing service provider AuthorHouse did not do well with a similar argument when it was sued for libel (and now includes extensive disclaimers in its service agreement). For a publisher that touts its entrepreneurial focus, this does seem a bit short-sighted.

These scenarios are not far-fetched. The odds they'd happen might be slim--but they aren't zero.

CONCLUSION

Despite its name and claims, NDP is not much like a publisher, in the traditional sense of a company that takes on the entire work of producing, distributing, and marketing a carefully curated catalog of books.

It more closely resembles a self-publishing services provider, with an added element of coaching and community interaction. With its focus on entrepreneurship, NDP seems a better fit for people who want to use a book as a calling card or a line on their resume, than for those with ambitions of authorship. In particular, it seems a bad fit for novelists and other creative writers.

Regardless, anyone who decides to sign up with NDP should be aware that to all intents and purposes they are self-publishing, that crowdfunding success is not assured, and that--as with any self-published book--the burden and expense of marketing will fall to them.

Most of the authors I heard from had positive things to say about their CI/NDP experience, and were happy with their finished books. But all expressed dissatisfaction with aspects of the program and/or business model, from concerns about the quality of editing and copy editing, to doubts about the usefulness of the seminars, to disappointment with the lack of marketing support. These concerns echo those expressed by Clare Marie Edgeman, who lays out in a detailed blog post why she regrets publishing with NDP (see especially the section titled "The Red Flags I Ignored").

I'm also troubled by the ethics of the CI to NDP pipeline. CI students don't have to publish their books with NDP. But what about alternatives? CI/NDP literature paints a discouraging picture of traditional publishing, claiming it offers few chances for first-time authors "unless the author has a built-in audience that can purchase 10,000 copies of a book", and gobbles up "90-95% of all the profit" (Overview, pages 11 and 12). According to a previous Overview, trad pubbed writers "give up their rights" and "typically end up owing the publisher money" if they don't meet sales targets (page 11). Similarly misleading claims are made in a CI video lecture I viewed, including the common false meme that the "average" trad pubbed book sells just 250-300 copies.

Of course, for most CI authors, trad pub is moot, since 30,000-word manuscripts are unlikely to interest bigger houses unless they're for the juvenile market, and the low word count eliminates many smaller presses as well. What about self-publishing, then? That's portrayed as too expensive: "the average self-published author reports spending $4,450 on publishing costs" (Overview, page 14--it's worth noting that this is just $550 less than NDP's lowest fee level). According to the video lecture, first year sales for most self-pubbers are 50 copies or fewer. (I'm sure there are many successful self-publishers who can attest to spending far less--and selling more, too.)

The inevitable conclusion: "Hybrid publishing...offer[s] the best combination for first-time authors" (Overview, page 12). Essentially, it's a closed loop: the CI program produces manuscripts that, for word count and possibly other reasons, have limited publishing options, and NDP is there to publish them.

Prof. Koester is NDP's co-founder. This fact isn't exactly hidden, but it is also not disclosed on NDP's website or in its literature, which describes the relationship between CI and NDP as a "partnership" (as though NDP hadn't been created specifically to service the CI program) and only acknowledges that Prof. Koester "worked" with NDP to "design this innovative, group-based, hybrid publishing experience" (Overview, page 2).

For me, this raises a question: is NDP a profitmaking entity? If so, that would represent a considerable conflict of interest. NDP's cost breakdown for its services does suggest that it's break-even, more or less, for CI students--but NDP also calls for unsolicited submissions from non-CI participants, and does "custom" publishing where costs are higher.

I sent this question, along with a number of others, to Prof. Koester several weeks ago. He has not responded.

******

UPDATE 1/25/21: Three days after I published this post, Prof. Koester responded to my questions. He has given me permission to reproduce his answers here. I've commented on some of them (in bold).

Writer Beware: NDP authors receive what is described as a Publishing Agreement (I've seen several examples, along with other NDP materials), and NDP is characterized in your Spring 2020 overview document as a "full service publisher". Yet the Agreement is missing many components that publishing agreements from full-service publishers typically include, including exactly what rights are being granted to NDP and for what time period, whether subsidiary rights are involved, the parameters of editing (for instance, ensuring that major changes require author consent), warranties and indemnities, and language governing contract termination and reversion of rights (which could pose problems for writers down the road). Can you help me understand why NDP doesn't address these important issues in its Publishing Agreement? 

Eric Koester: Earlier this year we updated our publishing agreement to include answers to some of those questions, but in truth we may be incorrectly using the term “full service publisher” in our documentation. From what you’ve shared, these terms don’t really apply to ‘professionally supported self publishing’ — so it may well be that the term ‘full service publishing’ is used in error. We’ve tried to keep the agreements simple, straightforward and devoid of legalese, and so likely anything we’ve excluded is with that in mind. The short version is that New Degree Press takes no rights in the work, and any guidance to make that clear (and not confusing) would be welcomed. 

I think the document you reviewed (the publishing agreement) was from early in 2020... it's since been updated to cover all of the elements you discussed. Happy to share the updated document if it's helpful. Any changes you recommend, we'd be happy to try and update. (The contracts I saw are from September 2020. Prof. Koester has promised to send me the latest version; when I receive it I'll post an update.)

WB: I'm aware that authors run crowdfunding campaigns on IndieGoGo to fund the costs of NDP's various publication options. I've looked at many of these campaigns (both current and past, archived on the site), and while many reach and even exceed their goals, some fall short (this has been independently confirmed for me). I've read what your Spring 2020 overview document says about what happens when a crowdfunding campaign doesn't generate enough money to fund the writer's chosen option, but can you give me one or two real-life examples? 

EK: Yes that’s correct — it’s a very high funding success rate — in the 90%+ success rate every cohort thus far. (96% is the figure given in NDP's most recent literature.) If you review prior campaigns Indiegogo, you may find there are some authors who did NOT meet their goals but if you look further you’ll see that the author did go on to publish. An example of that is Kenneth Joyner (Without a Father, October 2019). For Kenneth, he was prepared to fund the entire publishing costs himself, but decided to run a pre-sale campaign as an audience building activity and covered just over 50% of his costs through his pre-sale campaign. He covered the remainder himself and additional cash preorders. Unlike Kickstarter, these pre-sale campaigns are setup to be “Flexible”, meaning author receive the proceeds even if they do not reach their goal. That meant Kenneth used the proceeds even though he did not hit the campaign goal. 

 Another author Vihan Khanna sold $460 of books on Indiegogo (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/what-s-your-plus-by-vihan-khanna/x/20569148#/) and decided to use those proceeds towards self publishing which he did, releasing the book (https://www.amazon.com/Whats-Your-Plus-Graduate-College-ebook/dp/B08LK54SF4) in October 2020. Ruth Cowan started a campaign but was not able to sell sufficient copies, so I worked with her to turn her writing into a series of long-form articles based on her book content, and she refunded the pre-sale proceeds. 

One important note on the timing: we are intentional that authors do NOT begin the publishing activities (other than some simple things like revisions) until they've completed their campaign. That way if an author does walk away, they are not required to "reimburse" any costs. It's setup that once an author has successfully pre-sold the sufficient copies, they they proceed to the publishing process.

WB: According to your Spring 2020 overview document, writers can work with NDP on customized publishing packages even if they don't go through the Creator Program, but the costs are higher. Can you give me an idea of the cost range for custom publishing?

EK: The costs vary depending on the book, but usually they range from $7,500 to $10,000. An example of a book that did not go through the Creator Program, but was published via a customized publishing package is Paws To Comfort (https://www.amazon.com/Paws-Comfort-Everyday-Learning-Disconnected/dp/1641372109).

WB: What sales can an NDP book expect, on average, beyond the crowdfunding pre-sales?

EK: On average, authors will pre-sell 165-170 copies, and while New Degree Press does not have exact sales numbers of the authors, from the authors who provide them they will typically sell between 100-300 more copies in their first year. There are outliers who have sold multiple thousands who do skew the average higher. 

This means that authors can expect to be around the median first year sales numbers of comparable traditionally published books, and far exceeding most self published books. (The same misleading claim about trad-pub sales is made in the lecture video I saw: that sales for a trad-pubbed book average 250-300 copies. It's a common meme, but as a broad generalization, it is not accurate.)

WB: Brian Bies doesn't seem to have had any publishing experience (other than participating in the Creator Program) before becoming NDP's Head of Publishing. Can you help me understand why NDP chose not to hire someone with a professional background in publishing or a related field?

EK: The publishing process at New Degree Press is based on an educational pedagogy of ‘creation-based learning’ — which means that the goal of the publishing experience is a taught/guided experience through all the aspects of publishing (pre-sales, revisions, covers, layout, marketing, printing). This has made the experience rich and fulfilling for authors who have agency and autonomy over decisions related to their book, with the support of experienced professionals. Each author goes through five main phases of their publishing journey, has a weekly live instructional session plus a one-on-one coaching call each week. 

 As a result, this cohort-based, creation based learning approach to publishing at New Degree Press requires a different blend of skills and experiences to work — this process is all based on the original, semester-long publishing course. As we moved from a Georgetown course into today’s cohort-based publishing experience it requires us to weave this weekly, class-based learning approach into the tactical nature of book production. The New Degree Press management team includes heads of Acquiring Editorial, Revision Editorial, Copy Editing, Art/Design, Layout and Marketing all of whom bring decades of experience in their respective fields. The head of publishing role serves to ‘manage’ the author's journey and learning experience through each of those steps, stages and services. While Brian Bies may not bring extensive publishing industry experience, he brings substantial relevant experiences to the cohort-based publishing process having spent two years co-facilitating the ‘publishing semester’ course with me while at Georgetown and running the on-time and on-budget production processes of more than 125 books in that capacity. Over these two years he would personally facilitate more than 250 hours of publishing labs/workshops and would directly support over 100 authors from first draft manuscript to published book as my teaching assistant. Therefore, it made tactical sense to have him serve as the head of publishing who collaborates with the heads of multiple service-areas and guides each author-book through the weekly cohort-based sessions.

WB: Can you give me an idea of the kinds of credentials that other NDP staff have (editors, marketers, artists)?

EK: Acquiring Editorial — The Acquiring Editor Department has a breadth of experience and specializes in reviewing manuscripts from a number of different genres and subject areas. Some of the areas of expertise include: Poetry, Graphic Novels, Memoirs, Young Adult & Children’s Literature, Technology, Start-ups, Business, Anthropology, Sociology, Social Justice, Cultural Studies, Religion, Arts, and more. The average AE holds one more degrees in Writing, Teaching, Editing (including MFA) and has at least 4-6 years of experience in publishing. Venus Bradley (Head AE) has been in publishing for 10+ years, working on the publishing side of Borders and Barnes & Noble, has a BA and MFA in Writing, Creative Writing & Editing. The AE Department has experience working at a number of different publishers (both big and small), to name a few: Candlewick Press, McGraw Hill, Pearson Education, and Duke University Press. (As mentioned above, I was able to find NDP editorial staff with this kind of experience--but also a number with considerably less, including individuals who had not worked as editors at all prior to their job with NDP.)

Revision Editorial & Marketing — Every Marketing & Revisions Editor holds at least one degree in Teaching, Journalism, Scriptwriting, Writing, and/or Communications; approximately 50% of the MREs hold 1 or more advanced degrees beyond that. The average MRE holds at least 5-7 years of experience in marketing (in TV, in Advertising, or Marketing). Most MREs have at least 3-5 years of experience in publishing, and several with more than 10+ years experience in the industry. 

Copy Editing — The Copy Editing Department has a breadth of experience in the industry (Amanda Brown, Head CE has 20+ years of experience in copy editing and publishing) and have worked at a variety of Publishing Companies (both Traditional and Smaller Presses) prior to working at NDP. The Copy Editing Department brings every manuscript up to CMoS Standards and helps polish books prior to publication. 

Art/Design and Layout — Everyone in the Layout Department has 10-15+ years of experience in Layout & Design within Publishing, Journalism, and/or Media. The Art Department is relatively younger (the average experience is 2-3 years), but most designers hold 1 or more degrees in Visual Arts/Graphic Design. The Average Designer at NDP has worked on at least 50-60 books within their particular genre they design for prior to working with NDP.

WB: Is NDP a profitmaking enterprise? 

EK: NDP is a social venture and is currently undergoing the process to be certified as a B-corporation (benefit corporation) like Laureate and Guild (other social education ventures). NDP does not rely on donations or grants (like 501(c)(3)), but it's aim is to build a sustainable business that can maximize impact and educational outcomes. To date, NDP has covered its annual operating costs and paid for the staff, contractors and team. Any remaining publishing proceeds have been used to subsidize/sponsor the costs of the book creation courses and editors for students (acting much like a sponsor enabling students to participate at a sponsored rate). This is how we are able to provide students access to an editor for $249, while professionals pay $499.

WB: I'm aware that publishing with NDP is not mandatory for writers who go through the Creators Program. Even so, are you concerned about the appearance of conflict of interest in steering writers who participate in the program into a fee-charging publisher you helped to found?

EK: I think you always should be concerned about ‘steering’ anyone anywhere. I position the NDP publishing option as an option and I’m very upfront as to why generally it’s been a good fit for so many of my students — high success rates, no ownership rights given up, and a funding mechanism to make supported publishing accessible. Much like university presses which are an option available to those connected to the university, we see this as a benefit that authors have available to them. 

And there is an important educational aspect of the Creators programs where I teach the students every week. It’s been one of the most important parts of the program to do a series of lectures on the publishing industry and book publishing economics designed to give authors a great deal of information about the publishing industry. Additionally, each author does their own calls with the publishing team. The goal of all of this is to create empowered authors — giving them information to make informed decisions — and never creating a scenario where they are obligated or financially required to do anything related to publishing. I find New Degree Press fills an important gap in the publishing market and does it very well.

January 8, 2021

Writer Beware: 2020 in Review (Not That Anyone Really Wants to Review 2020)


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

It's time again for Writer Beware's annual look back at the schemes, scams, and assorted crazy sh*t we encountered in 2020 (and I'm not even talking about the pandemic).

WHAT'S IN A NAME? THE NEWEST SCAM TREND

Scammers lie, cheat, and misrepresent. They may claim credentials they don't have, or professional relationships they don't possess. But this is a new trend: multiple scammers impersonating real, reputable literary agents and publishers in order to defraud writers. 

The Impersonation Game A scammer posing as Jennifer Jackson of the Donald Maass Literary Agency attempts to cheat an unsuspecting writer out of $1,400 (which of course the real Jennifer Jackson would never do).

A New "Beware": Scammers Impersonating Reputable Literary Agents It's not just Jennifer Jackson. In a scheme that traces back to two Philippines-based publishing and marketing scammers, several other agents' names have been appropriated.

Alert: Scammers Impersonating Major Publishing Houses Fake publishing offers, supposedly from HarperCollins (which of course involve large fees), courtesy of another overseas scammer.

Dissecting a Scam: The Literary Scout Impersonator Publishing/marketing scammer Chapters Media--which is also impersonating a roster of agents--steals the identity of Clare Richardson of Maria B. Campbell Associates in an unusually elaborate scheme that cost one writer $13,000.

PUBLISHERS IN TROUBLE

Sadly, there's never a shortage of stories like these.

Mass Contract Cancellations at Mystery Publisher Henery Press Out-of-the blue cancellations trimmed Henery's list by dozens of authors and books. Though the cancellations were a surprise, the publisher had been showing signs of trouble for a long time.

Small Press Storm Warnings: Lethe Press, Seventh Star Press Multiple complaints about payment problems, contract breaches, and toxic culture from authors at these two small presses.

Small Press Storm Warnings: Filles Vertes Press Long-standing problems--late payments, missed publication dates, missed production deadlines, and serious communications issues--spurred a flood of staff resignations and author rights reversion requests, and ultimately the publisher's closure.

SAVE YOUR CASH

The shady underbelly of the publishing world is chock-a-block with schemes to take authors' money, by fair means or foul. Here are some especially foul examples.

Junk Book Marketing: Pay-to-Play Magazines Compilations of ads, interviews, and "feature articles" sold to writers at enormous prices, these faux magazines are not distributed or circulated to the public in any meaningful way.

Should You Pay to Display Your Book at BookExpo? The short answer: no, because such offers at best are useless, and at worst are scams. BookExpo no longer exists, and most book fairs have gone virtual during the pandemic, but this is something to keep in mind once the world goes back to an approximation of normal. 

CAREFUL WITH CONTRACTS

The good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

Publishing Contracts: Six Ways You May Be Sabotaging Yourself How writers get screwed: by making assumptions about a publisher's intentions, letting their emotions overrule their business sense, and forgetting that, in the author-publisher relationship, the publishing contract is the bottom line. This post offers some suggestions for changing damaging ways of thinking.

Bad Contract Alert: EMP Entertainment and A&D Entertainment These Singapore-based companies are just two of many that are actively soliciting writers with offers to distribute their work to reading platforms like Webnovel, or to publish on their own mobile reading apps. Beware: their contract terms are terrible.

HOW TO USE A PANDEMIC TO LEGITIMIZE INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY THEFT

The Internet Archive's Open Library Project--a huge repository of scanned print books available for borrowing in various formats--justifies its existence with a novel (and disputed) legal theory called Controlled Digital Lending, which it claims allows it to create new digital editions of in-copyright books without seeking owners' permission. 

In March, as the coronavirus pandemic was taking off across the world, the IA abandoned one of the key provisions of CDL to create the National Emergency Library--basically, the Open Library with restrictions on borrowing removed--in order to address what it described as "unprecedented global and immediate need for access to reading and research materials" (never mind that such materials are already widely available for borrowing online via local, state, and university libraries). Publishers and authors' groups responded with outcry, accusing the IA of "using a global crisis to advance a copyright ideology that violates current federal law and hurts most authors" and ultimately initiating a lawsuit. 

Copyright Violation Redux: The Internet Archive's National Emergency Library  Controlled Digital Lending, what it is and why this theory--and its practice--is harmful to writers.


CONTESTS TO AVOID

If you've been reading here for a while, you'll know that I'm no fan of contests--not just because they often involve big entry fees (even the legit ones), but because they so often have author-unfriendly rules and guidelines. Although all these contests are past and closed, the "bewares" they represent are fairly common, and you may encounter them elsewhere.

Contest Scam Alert: Legaia Books Online Book Competition When is a literary contest not a literary contest? When its purpose is to make money for the contest sponsor, or to assemble a list of likely customers.

Contest Beware: "Lovecraft Country" Short Story Contest From HBO and The Root (a publication that should know better), a writing contest with egregious rights grabs.

Bad Contest Terms: T.A. Barron's "Once Upon a Villain" Flash Fiction Contest This contest features another inappropriate rights grab--what happens when you let lawyers loose on contest guidelines.

VANITY, VANITY

Vanity publishing--and the misinformation and deceptions vanity pubs use to ensnare writers--never seems to go out of style. Unfortunately.

Pay to Play Alert: Europe Books / Europa Edizioni / Gruppo Albatros Il Filo To all appearances a traditional publisher, Europe Books actually requires writers to buy 200 copies of their own books, at four-figure costs. It is currently heavily soliciting authors.

James Paul Amstell: A Vanity Publisher By Any Name Also actively soliciting for submissions, Mr. Amstell's vanity outfit calls itself Book Publishers London...the third in a procession of shifting names.

AGENCY ALARMS

Agencies in Turmoil Threats of legal action from Red Sofa Literary, mass firings at Corvisiero Literary Agency.

Attack of the Fake Literary Agencies: West Literary Agency, Stellar Literary Press and Media Unlike the agent impersonators, these "agencies" aren't assuming others' identities--but they're still fake as hell.

Dissecting a Scam: Fact & Fiction Literary Agency In which I uncover the facts of this "agency's" many fictions.

Beware: Pigeon House Literary / Druella Burhan Scammers hurt writers...but so do incompetents.

GENERAL BEWARES

Be careful out there!

Audiblegate: How Audible-ACX Returns Policy Penalizes Writers Audible-ACX allows some customers to make unlimited returns, encouraging cheating, and doesn't report returns on authors' sales statements, resulting in an inaccurate picture of sales. Thanks to writers' activism, both practices have recently come to light.

Spooky Phishing Scam Targets Traditionally-Published Writers Someone is stealing contracted but not-yet-published manuscripts, and nobody knows who or why.

AND FINALLY, A SALUTE TO THE CRAZY

Sometimes, writing for this blog is hard (I often cover complicated issues). Sometimes, it's a lot of work (I research all my posts, but some need more than others). Sometimes, though, it's just plain fun.

Space Kadet: The Twisted Tale of a Sad, Sad, Internet Troll To writers who frequent Twitter, especially #WritingCommunity and #amwriting, Gary Scott Kadet will need no introduction. A vitriolic and insanely prolific troll, he has used a dizzying array of sockpuppet accounts to stalk, harass, and obsessively demean writers, agents, and editors. When, quite accidentally, I had my own encounter with him, the results were...interesting.

December 31, 2020

James Paul Amstell: A Vanity Publisher By Any Name


A quick "beware" as we bid a glad goodbye to 2020.

A guy called James Paul Amstell (aka J.P. Amstell or James Amstell) is madly changing the name of his recently-launched vanity publishing operation, likely in order to evade online warnings (mostly from me).

The first iteration, Heart and Goldman Book Publishers, has been wiped from the web. I have one of its contracts, though, which gives authors the option of paying between £1,000 and £4,000, depending on what level of service they choose. Other traces remain:


The second iteration, J.P. Amstell Book Publishers, has also been erased, though Google has cached some of its website and I saved some as well. See the image at the top of this post.

Though Mr. Amstell changed the name of his publishing venture, he didn't bother to change the website. Other than substituting "J.P. Amstell Book Publishers" for "Heart and Goldman", the sites were identical. Sometimes, though, search-and-replace lets you down.


This past September, I tweeted a warning about the name switcheroo:


I also posted a warning on Facebook. A few days later, this landed in my personal inbox:


You can imagine my (non-)response. Ditto for the identical threat Mr. Amstell sent three days later.

I've heard nothing further. However, possibly because websearches on J.P. Amstell bring up my warnings on the first page, Mr. Amstell appears to have felt the need for yet another name change.


Notice any similarities?

Once again, apart from "Book Publishers London" in place of "J.P. Amstell Book Publishers", BPL's extremely wordy site content--which includes serious misinformation about traditional publishing and does not disclose the fees--is identical to that of the previous two. For instance:


This time, though, Mr. Amstell has managed a better job of name replacement.

Mr. Amstell is currently soliciting manuscript submissions as Book Publishers London (that's how I became aware of the latest name change):


Mr. Amstell doesn't seem to have actually published any books to date, under any of his company names. Since his first foray into vanity publishing kicked off over a year ago, that does make one wonder. Also, contrary to his claim of maintaining a "staff who previously worked deep inside the traditional system at senior levels with important positions in power throughout the entire traditional world," Mr. Amstell seems to plan on outsourcing much of the work--judging, at least, by the several author services providers who contacted me after Mr. Amstell sent them identical proposals for book formatting.

More evidence of the interconnection of the three publishers, from Companies House:


Mr. Amstell appears to have been associated with two additional companies, both dissolved. Note the identical birth dates and also the creative deployment of different versions of his name, which (with the exception above) avoids more than one company showing up on a search on any one version.

UPDATE 1/17/21: I'm starting to hear from writers who've paid Amstell, under one name or another, and have gotten nothing for their money (including responses to their emails).
 
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