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.

November 20, 2020

#Audiblegate: How Audible-ACX Returns Policy Penalizes Authors


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Do you have audiobooks on Audible, either through your publisher or via ACX? If so, you'll want to head over to author Susan May's blog.


What follows is a long, detailed account of how Audible-ACX has been, in effect, hiding the volume of audiobook returns from authors by lumping them in with sales. 

Here's how it works. Audible-ACX records audiobook sales on a daily basis--but it shows them as an aggregate figure: the total of books sold less books returned. Returns are not broken out separately, and only show up on authors' sales statements if they exceed the number of sales. 


Why is this a problem? Well, returns strip authors of income, since authors' accounts are debited for those returns. Of course, returns are a fact of life in the book biz. But Audible-ACX's Premium Plus program--a relatively new membership category that allows readers to make unlimited returns (for books not finished) and exchanges (for books fully read), no questions asked--aggressively promotes returns and exchanges as a reader benefit, likely incentivizing readers to do so.

Hiding returns under sales also prevents authors from getting an accurate picture of how their books are doing in the marketplace. If your sales figure is zero, you can't know if it's zero because you've sold no books or because sales and returns cancel each other out. If your sales figure is ten, how many returns--if any--are included? If your sales figure is -5, does that mean five returns total, or were there even more returns that were offset by sales--sales you'll never be able to count because of the aggregate accounting? All of this is information authors need to assess and plan important things like marketing strategies. 

More generally, an unlimited returns policy lends itself to abuse. Readers can, for instance, use the monthly credit they receive with their Audible memberships to download and return multiple audiobooks--without paying for any of them. For example, an author who joined Audible as a new customer in order to test the system was able to download and return more than 20 audiobooks in just three days, using the same customer credit. Readers can also load up their devices with multiple books, and then return those books en masse, without penalty, when they don't have time to read them. 

In the Facebook group where Audible-ACX authors have gathered to share information and experiences, there's discussion of these and other abuses.

Because of the way Audible-ACX treats returns, authors weren't aware of the scale of the problem until this past October, when a technical glitch caused three weeks of returns to be recorded in one day. Suddenly, the returns that had been largely camouflaged by sales when reported on a day-by-day basis sprang into glaring view.  

Since then, authors have been emailing Audible-ACX to ask for their returns data, to request that returns be broken out separately from sales, and to request that at least some limits be imposed on returns. "Twenty or thirty odd percent of a book is enough to know if you like the narrator and want to continue," May writes. "This is the return policy we want implemented." 

Reportedly, Audible-ACX has responded only with "cookie-cutter" replies that ignore the requests. Amazon and its companies are famously black boxes, and frequently take unilateral actions they decline to explain. So this is about what you'd expect. But that doesn't make it right. 

Susan May and others are advising writers to put their audiobook projects on hold until Audible addresses the problems. In the meantime, the Authors Guild and the Alliance of Independent Authors are going to bat for Audible-ACX authors. ALLi has received a "we take your concerns very seriously" response from Audible, saying that they are "actively reviewing this policy with the feedback under consideration." Per a media release on November 19, ALLi has downgraded ACX from an "approved" service to "pending", until a satisfactory answer is provided.

For more reporting, see this post from Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader, this YouTube video from writer Daniel Greene, and this post from writer Kyle West. Or check out the #Audiblegate hashtag on Twitter.

Authors are welcome to join the Fair Deal for Rights Holders and Narrators Facebook group, where Audible-ACX authors and others have come together to try and work for change. Authors aren't the only ones who are affected: narrators who've accepted a profit share as payment are also losing income. 

Returns aren't the only issue with Audible-ACX, by the way. Susan May indicates in her post that there are substantial delays on approval of finished audiobooks (pre-dating the pandemic), and last year I wrote about problems with rights fraud and inexplicably withdrawn promotional codes. 

UPDATE: Authors Guild, SFWA, RWA, ALLi, Novelists Inc., and Dramatists Guild have jointly issued a letter to Audible’s CEO Bob Carrigan and General Counsel Stas Zakharenko, demanding that Audible end its practice of encouraging easy returns and exchanges. "This is not an exchange policy, but an unauthorized audiobook rental arrangement supported by authors’ reversed royalties, and it must stop." You can add your name to the letter here.

UPDATE 11/25/20: Audible has responded to authors' and narrators' concerns by announcing that as of January 1, 2021, ACX will begin paying royalties on titles returned more than 7 days after purchase. 

Notably, there's no mention of the accounting concerns outlined above, and the announcement includes a lengthy justification of the returns policy, along with a claim that returns abuse by customers is "extremely rare". 

The Authors Guild has updated its letter to Audible to respond to the policy change. 


At Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson has more responses from authors' groups, including ALLi and the Society of Authors.

UPDATE 11/27/20: Multiple members of the Fair Deal for Rights Holders and Narrators Facebook group are reporting that they've received this email from ACX, removing their titles from sale for "suspicious free trial activity":


Has ACX decided to deal with customer abuse by penalizing authors? If so, that would make absolutely zero sense, and be massively unfair. 

Stay tuned.

October 30, 2020

Disssecting a Scam: The Literary Scout Impersonator


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

I've written several posts about a fairly new phenomenon in the world of writing scams: scammers that falsely use the names of reputable publishing professionals, including literary agents and publishers, to lure writers into paying large amounts of money for worthless, substandard, and/or never-delivered services.

This time, I'm breaking down a very similar scam that, capitalizing on the pandemic-fueled popularity of Netflix and other streaming services (as well as the eternal writerly dream of having one's book translated into film), is appropriating the name of Clare Richardson, Senior Scout for film and TV at the New York office of Maria B. Campbell Associates, to hoodwink writers in an unusually complicated--and expensive--scheme.

Here's "Clare's" initial approach:

Warning signs abound. First, it's Maria B. Campbell Associates, not Maria Campbell Associates (a small error, but it's unlikely a real literary scout would get the name of their own agency wrong). Second, the scammer uses a gmail address (mariacampbellassociates@gmail.com), which not only is implausible for an agency with its own web domain, but doesn't match the email address on the agency website (info@mbcbook.com). Third, not only are such out-of-the-blue approaches rare, a real literary scout won't offer to act as your social media broker, or to hook you up with book video providers. That's not what scouts do.

However, an eager writer--especially an inexperienced one, their head spinning with visions of Netflix fame and fortune--could be pardoned for missing these hints of bogosity. The scammer is counting on it.

If the writer responds, they get an immediate followup: 


"Clare" is signaling the next step: the pitch for money. And boom! Less than two hours later:


The stench of rat is even more apparent here. Like a reputable literary agent, a reputable literary scout won't ask for upfront money, or make buying some sort of service a condition of working with them. Also, "Clare's" description of the representation process is 100% not how it works--a real literary scout sends out writers' books or manuscripts, not video trailers and screenplays written by random, un-named "professional content writers". And anytime someone who offers to represent you tells you that you don't need a contract, run like hell. 

Again, though, inexperienced writers may not recognize the warning signs. Plus, in a world where writers and publishing people never stop talking about social media and self-promotion, "Clare's" recommendations may seem to make sense...especially since "she" appears to be open to the writer buying services from someone else. (It's a trick many scammers use, knowing very well that few potential victims will know how to "find another company to help you".)

Given the go-ahead, "Clare" responds with this:


Now, if you looked at the links in the first paragraph of this post, "Mia Roberts" and "Chapters Media" may ring a bell. That's because this is the same outfit that's running a similar scam using the name of Jennifer Jackson of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. After all, if your scam plan is to impersonate a literary professional, why stop at just one?

If the writer contacts Mia (which this writer did, the same day), they get a quick response offering social media marketing packages starting at $1,399. The Chapters gang is certainly aware that credit card charges can be successfully disputed by defrauded authors, so they've taken steps to make sure that doesn't happen:


Having wired their money away, the author hears from yet another character.


Later, "Emma" sends the writer a "campaign proposal" consisting of windy (but carefully vague) promises, generic social media "strategies" (Facebook ads, etc.), and a pledge to make regular progress reports. We'll have those million impressions before you know it! Around the same time, the writer hears from "Clare":


The purpose here isn't just to make it look like "Clare" is working for the writer, with fancy-sounding marketing promises that the writer has no way to verify (are ebook displays at book fairs even a thing? Not to mention, again: this is not what a literary scout does). It's to set the writer up for the next phase of the scam: book orders! From a real bookstore!


This is an email that might make any writer flip out. Seven stores! 500 books! For each store! 

Never mind that no independent bookstore chain is going to place such an enormous order for a book by a non-celebrity author (though an inexperienced writer may not realize this). Never mind that, as with "Clare Richardson", the email address is wrong: another gmail address, josephbethemailconsultant@gmail.com, rather than the email format Joseph-Beth actually uses (unfortunately, not so easy to determine, given that Joseph-Beth doesn't provide an email address on its website). And never mind that no bookseller would claim that any author--or publisher--had to obtain "Insurance Proofs to cover for possible loss". Why? Because there's no such thing. 

Something the scammer, again, is betting the writer doesn't know.

At this point, Mia takes over--by phone this time, since phone calls are a better persuader than emails. No bookseller, she claims, will place an order unless the author has insurance and is "registered" with Ingram. If you want to sell books, you really don't have a choice. It'll cost you nearly $6,000, but don't faint: Tamara's amazing book order will not only cover the expense, but make sure there's a profit! (The scammer is hoping the writer isn't aware of how bookstores actually buy and sell books.) Of course, Mia will handle all the arrangements, so you don't need to worry about where to send your money. Just wire it to Chapters Media.

To scammers like the Chapters Media mob, writers are frogs to be boiled. Lure them with what seems like an amazing offer (for instance, by what appears to be a reputable literary scout) costing a large, but not necessarily eye-popping, amount of cash. If they hop into the pot (thereby identifying themselves as willing marks), lull them with promises, fake progress reports, and even a bit of flattery while turning up the heat with another offer, for even bigger money. If they still don't sense they're being scalded and pay up, do it again. And so on, until the writer realizes they're on fire or the scammer decides that all the meat is off the bones, at which point the scammer disappears.

That's what happened to two of the writers who kindly provided me with all this documentation. One, who shelled out only for the social media campaign, was so disgusted by the campaign's low quality that they started asking questions, at which point Mia and crew ghosted. Later, the writer found my blog. 

The other writer bought the book insurance, and quickly received another "order" from another purported bookstore--which, of course, required yet more insurance. After they wired the cash, the booksellers canceled, and Mia and her band of thieves stopped responding to emails and texts. The writer is out more than $13,000.

********

Some basic tips for protecting yourself: 

1. Know how things work in the publishing world. Agents and scouts don't charge upfront fees. They don't sell marketing services, or refer writers to companies that do, as a condition of representation. And they don't commonly contact writers out of the blue. The warnings at the Writer Beware website can help you recognize non-standard or predatory practices.

2. Proceed from a point of skepticism. An unsolicited contact from a literary agent or scout isn't automatically suspect. As commenters have pointed out on a number of my other posts, it does happen. But, as mentioned, it's not common. Out-of-the-blue contacts are far more likely to be illegitimate than on the level. Caution is always in order. 

3. Mistrust--and verify. Google all the individuals and/or companies that are mentioned to see what information you can find...and do it BEFORE you respond. Are there complaints? Have they shown up on this blog? If someone claims to work for an agency, visit the agency's website to see if that person is mentioned--and be suspicious if they aren't. If an individual or company claims to have placed books with reputable publishers, or to have sold film or other subsidiary rights, see if you can verify the claim--and if you can't, or if there are no researchable details attached to the claim (such as names or book titles), be wary. If the name and bio check out, but the approach seems suspicious (if their English is ungrammatical, for instance, which many scam approaches are), don't be afraid to contact the agency to ask.

4. Use your common sense. Anyone can make an occasional typo, but professionals communicate professionally (no reputable agent would send out language-challenged emails like the ones above). Check the email address and any links--do they match the person or company claiming to be contacting you? If there's a demand for money, or if there's a service for sale, be sure it's a company that customarily charges such fees or offers such services (reputable agents and scouts generally don't).

5. Contact Writer Beware. Always a good default. We may have heard something, or received complaints. If we have, we'll let you know.

Finally, I want to note that, while writers are the scammers' principal targets, the agents, scouts, and agencies are also victims. Scams like the one described above are a form of identity theft, tying the person's name and reputation to dishonest and predatory practices that they are then forced to disclaim. Everybody loses--except the scammer, of course. 

Hopefully, with increased awareness, we can make it more likely that the scammers will be losers, too.

UPDATE 11/12/20: The Clare Richardson impersonator seems to be aware that writers are getting wise to the scammers' accents. 


October 19, 2020

Bad Contest Terms: T.A. Barron's Once Upon A Villain Flash Fiction Contest


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Popular YA/MG author T.A. Barron is running a flash fiction contest


Stories must be 750 words or fewer, and the contest is accepting submissions through Friday, October 23. Three winners will receive prize packages consisting of books, games, swag, and/or gift cards.

The catch? You guessed it. It's in the fine print of the contest guidelines. (I wasn't able to provide a direct link to these, but if you scroll down to the bottom of the contest post there's a link you can click to see them.)

Here's my main concern.


While this grant of rights is non-exclusive (you aren't barred from publishing the story elsewhere), it is also inappropriately sweeping. The contest sponsor (identified in the rules as Thomas A. Barron, LLC) has the right to do anything and everything with your entry, including publishing it and licensing it to others--royalty-free. Barron, LLC can also "modify and make derivative works...and...use any ideas, concepts, know-how, or techniques...for any purpose." There's no end point for the grant, which endures even for entries that are disqualified--nor are non-winners released from the grant, making any story submitted to this contest an instant reprint, even if it never gets published for the first time.

Last but certainly not least, entrants must waive moral rights. Moral rights for written work aren't much-recognized in the USA, so US writers may not be familiar with them--but they include the right of attribution. If you waive your moral rights, your writing can be published without your name--or attributed to someone else.

There's also this, in the "How to Enter" paragraph: "All entry information and materials become the property of the Sponsor and will not be acknowledged or returned." 

To writers who contacted me about the Once Upon A Villain contest, this suggested that Barron, LLC was trying not just to encumber entrants' rights, but to seize their actual intellectual property. But that doesn't really track with the grant of rights paragraph, sweeping as it is, so I'm not so sure. Back in the dinosaur days, when contests involved the submission of paper manuscripts, such provisions were common: they were not intended to make a copyright grab, but rather to spare the contest sponsor the expense of returning all those paper manuscripts. For Once Upon A Villain, of course, all submissions are digital--but there's a lot of lawyering in these rules, and this language may just be in keeping with the general overkill. Nevertheless, it's a curious inclusion, and not something you should see these days unless actual physical materials are involved.

I write a lot about contests on this blog. Since the problems are often very similar, my contest posts may seem repetitive; also, most contests are one-and-done, so they pose a limited threat rather than an ongoing one. Plus, it's pretty rare than any contest sponsor changes its mind about bad contest rules, even when outed (though that has happened). 

But contests are common, and writers love them. Many authors are already pretty savvy about this stuff; I became aware of Once Upon A Villain, for instance, via tweets and emails from concerned authors. But not all writers are forearmed--especially younger writers just starting out (Once Upon A Villain features an 18-and-under prize). And any warning reaches only a limited number of people. So I keep putting it out there, so that writers will understand what to look for--and avoid--in contest rules and guidelines...and, hopefully, will get into the habit of always carefully reading the fine print, no matter how dense or boring.

October 16, 2020

Bad Contract Alert: EMP Entertainment and A&D Entertainment


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Lately I've been hearing from writers who've been solicited by one or another of two companies offering to distribute their books to Webnovel, a Wattpad-like platform based in Asia: EMP Entertainment and A&D Entertainment. (Note: there are a number of companies with similar names focused on concert invites, event scheduling, and DJ services.)

EMP and A&D are both based in Singapore, and both are just 11 months old (which raises interesting questions about whether they're really different companies, though their contracts differ enough to suggest that they are). They present themselves as Webnovel partners, authorized to offer non-exclusive contracts that allow authors to continue to publish on other platforms (such as Wattpad, where both companies are actively approaching writers) if they choose.

However, I've seen numerous examples of each contract...and they are not author-friendly, to put it mildly. Nor are they truly non-exclusive.

EMP ENTERTAINMENT

Here's an example of an EMP solicitation. In addition to Webnovel, EMP promises to distribute writers' work to several other platforms.


Here's the contract. Substantial problems include:

- The grant of rights is "irrevocable" (Clause 4.1). EMP can terminate it at will or for breach (Clauses 9.1-9.5), but there's no option for the author to do so. 

- Also in Clause 4.1, the grant of rights is said to be "non-exclusive". However, this is severely limited by Clauses 4.2 and 10.1, which make any additional licenses subject to EMP's written consent, and directly contradicted by Clause 4.7, which prohibits authors from selling the work to third parties during the term of the agreement.


- Clause 4.7 includes what amounts to a perpetual claim on the work by EMP, since, even after the contract has been terminated, authors must allow EMP to match any offer for a subsequent sale, and can't complete a subsequent sale unless EMP signs off on it. (My highlighting.)


- There's what amounts to an ethics clause (Clause 4.3), which requires authors to "uphold the reputation of EMP Entertainment" and decrees that they "shall not engage in any activities which in the opinion of EMP Entertainment, reasonably held, may be harmful to the reputation of EMP Entertainment or its interests." Companies can and do abuse such clauses--something that's made even easier when the terms are as vague as they are here. 

- Authors receive 50% of "net revenue", which sounds good until you realize that it's actually net profit


These "total expenses" are not detailed anywhere in the contract, so authors have no idea of what they are, or how much they may reduce the amount on which royalties are calculated. (Payment is monthly, with a US$200 threshold.)

A&D ENTERTAINMENT

Here's part of A&D's solicitation. Unlike EMP, A&D promises distribution on Webnovel only, with various conditions attached.


Here's A&D's contract. In my opinion, it's even worse than EMP's.

- The grant of rights (Clause 3) is, basically, all rights forever. Writers must grant "any and all intellectual property rights in and to the Work" via "a worldwide, nonexclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, freely transferable and sublicensable license of the entire copyright subsisting in the Work." Whether A&D actually intends to take possession of copyright is not clear (despite the wording I've quoted, other language in the contract is ambiguous), but the duration of the grant is clear: life of copyright. 


- Like EMP, A&D seriously qualifies the supposed non-exclusivity of their license. A&D's Power of Attorney authorization forbids authors to exercise the granted rights without written permission:


Also, writers who want to maintain existing work on other platforms, such as Wattpad, must give Webnovel most favored nation status by publishing to Webnovel first, and by pausing or unpublishing previously published content to make sure that Webnovel is always several chapters ahead. 

- Did I mention that A&D requires authors to grant power of attorney? (See the last pages of the contract). There is absolutely zero reason for any publisher or platform to require this.

- Per Clause 9, which covers termination, the author has the right to terminate the contract only in the event of breach by A&D (including failure to pay royalties). A&D, by contrast, can terminate at will--and, if it deems various kinds of breach by the author, can impose onerous provisions. 

In Clause 9.1, for example, "breach" includes failing to deliver work on time or to A&D's satisfaction. If after "three reminders" the writer still can't satisfy, A&D can terminate the contract and bill the author for "all losses suffered in that connection, including but not limited to additional expenses incurred by Party A such as notary fees, attorney fees, accreditation fees, litigation fees, and travel fees."

Here's another example. Not only must the writer compensate A&D for "losses", they must return 50% of earned income.

- As with EMP, author royalties are paid on net profit. 

It's not stated anywhere in the contract what those "other costs" might be.

********

A lot of companies are jumping on the reading/writing app bandwagon. Several other "monetize your writing" chapter-by-chapter publishing platforms are actively soliciting authors on Wattpad and elsewhere. Unlike EMP and A&D, these companies aren't distributors; participating authors publish direct to the companies' platforms and reading apps. However, concerns about terms and contract language seem to be similar.

- Webnovel (sometimes dubbed "the Wattpad of Asia"). I've seen a number of its solicitations, and though I haven't yet seen a contract (Webnovel offers both exclusive and non-exclusive contracts), online discussions by authors who publish on the platform suggest that it has problems along the lines of those discussed above.

- Readict/VitalTek. This company asks writers to provide a sample of their work, which they'll display for a couple of weeks to gauge reader feedback and gather "data", whatever that means (here are the Terms and Conditions of submission). At the end of that period, they'll decide whether they want to offer a contract, which can be exclusive or non-exclusive. 

Writers may receive a flat licensing fee (supposedly as much as US$10,000, although in correspondence, a company representative acknowledged that there is a "range" starting at US$300), a signing bonus of $100, and "massive exposure". They refused to provide me with a contract sample. Readict also rewards referrals: if you get "peer writers" to sign up with the platform you can receive a bonus of "up to $500". Since there's no revenue sharing with Readict--whatever you get on the front end is it--there would seem to be a substantial incentive for Readict writers to solicit on their own.

- Anystories/Read ASAP Ltd. invites writers who've uploaded least 30,000 words to apply to be a "signed writer". If accepted, they may receive an exclusive or non-exclusive contract, and will earn monetary "rewards" based on how many words they upload per day (at least 1,500) and how many words their story contains (at least 80,000). The schedule is pretty grueling: writers must "update daily with a maximum of 3 days absent allowed per calendar month". Writers with exclusive contracts are eligible for an additional "cash prize."

- SofaNovel/Vlight I haven't seen a contract, but otherwise this one is very similar to the rest: exclusive or non-exclusive contract, signing bonus, income from "rewards". Based in Singapore, SofaNovel was launched--like EMP and A&D--in November 2019. Reviews of the app are mixed.

- Dreame/STARY Pte. Ltd. also also does business as FicFun and Ringdom. These sites' setup is  similar to Anystories: writers submit at least 30,000 words, after which they can apply for an exclusive contract and "rewards" depending on word counts and updates. To claim the rewards, they must update daily, with only two absences allowed per month. The STARY platforms allow fanfic but say they don't sign it. 

Other than Webnovel, the STARY ventures have been around the longest of these companies, and there's a fair bit of discussion about them, some of it not very favorable (among cited issues are poor quality/poorly edited stories and aggressive solicitation). Although the grant term is limited (5 years), snippets of the Dreame contract that have been posted online (see, for instance, this 2018 blog post and this Reddit thread) include problematic provisions, including net profit payment, no option for author termination, onerous penalties for author breach (return of all earned income, remuneration of company "losses"), and the use of the term "Digital Copyright" to describe what otherwise reads like a conventional (if sweeping) rights license. 

September 25, 2020

Pay-to-Play Alert: Europe Books / Europa Edizioni / Gruppo Albatros Il Filo


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Over the past few weeks, I've gotten a number of questions about a publisher called Europe Books (EB). It's part of a complex of "brands" under the umbrella of Gruppo Editoriale Europa, including Europa Edizioni (Italy), Europa Ediciones (Spain), and Europa Verlagsgruppe (Germany)*

EB's motto: "Our Books Travel the World." 
We live in a time of great political and social changes, of liquid boundaries and cultural contaminations. This context makes it inevitable that literatures rapidly lose their national connotation and gain a more extended European trait. Over the past 15 years, we have established our leadership by reaching a wider audience which is not confined to the Italian borders. We opened branch offices in the main European capitals. Both our bestselling writers and emerging authors are published simultaneously in Italy, Spain, Germany and, from now on, in England as well. France and the United States are our next goals.
Despite the slightly shaky English on display in the paragraph above, EB looks--at least to the casual glance--like a traditional publisher, boasting important-seeming titles in Italian editions by Barack Obama and Pope Francis, along with bestsellers by Adam Kay, Melvyn Bragg, and more.

On closer examination, however, it turns out that most of those titles have not been published by EB at all, but by other imprints of EB's parent company, Gruppo Albatros Il Filo (more on that below). There's also a distinct promoting-to-authors vibe on EB's website, with much mention of "emerging authors" and touting of the publicity EB says it provides. There's also this: a "submit your unpublished manuscript" page offering "evaluation" of a laundry list of markets and genres, from fiction to non-fiction to children's books to "degree theses" (not generally a category in which reputable publishers are actively seeking submissions). An equivalent page appears on each of the company's websites. There's even a standalone URL

Some caution is always in order when a publisher focuses recruitment efforts on unpublished authors; not infrequently, what the publisher is really after is inexperienced writers who'll be less likely to recognize a bad deal when they're offered one. And indeed:


"Co-production" equals pay-to-play. "May or may not" usually equals pretty much always.

Writers who submit to Europe Books, or are solicited to submit (EB seems to be active in that regard) are told that they must buy 200 copies of their own books--not at discount, but at cover price, with amounts running into four figures. Publication happens only upon payment in full. The order form is part of the contract:

Self-purchase requirements are a common way for vanity publishers to dodge the vanity label. It's not an upfront fee, it's just you buying your own books! But whether you pay upfront or after the fact, the bottom line is that you must give your publisher cash in order to be published. 

Far from being "co-productions"--which imply that the publisher is investing something of value--pay-to-play publishing offers are usually carefully calculated to cover not just the entire expense of publishing your book, but the publisher's overhead and profit as well. And a publisher that has made a profit before the book is even released is unlikely to be highly motivated to cut into that by providing high-quality editing, design (you can judge the quality of EB's book covers here), distribution, or marketing (EB's promised marketing, detailed in its contract, focuses on cheap and not-very-useful methods like website listings, press releases, and email blasts).

Note also the promise of a refund if 500 copies sell (those sales, of course, exclude ebooks and any copies bought by the author). Where fee-based publishers promise refunds, the benchmark has been set where it is because it's almost never reached. 

Other EB contract lowlights: 10% net royalties on electronic editions, sales reports just once a year and only on request, a two-year contract term with no possibility of renewal, and the ability of the author to cancel at any time. While that might sound good, the latter two provisions emphasize that it's all about the (upfront) money: once the writer has paid in full, EB has received its profit, and any sales are gravy. It thus has no need for an extended claim on the books themselves. 

As mentioned above, EB and the other Europa imprints under the Gruppo Editoriale Europa umbrella are just one branch of a larger group, Italian publisher Gruppo Albatros Il Filo. Albatros owns two additional imprints, Vertigo Edizioni and Lastaria Edizioni--which are the actual publishers of most of the recognizable authors and titles claimed on the websites of EB and its Europa cousins. 

Clearly, Albatros does at least some traditional publishing through Vertigo and Lastaria; it's not very likely that Barack Obama and Pope Francis--not to mention successful writers like Adam Kay (This Is Going To Hurt) and Jean Teule (Le Magasin des Suicides)--agreed to buy their own books in order to be published by these imprints. 

However, both Albatros and Vertigo have recruitment pages similar to those on the websites of the Europa brands; and writers' own experiences confirm pay-to-play offers from both. They've been doing it for a long time, too. In a 2012 expose, Italian author and journalist Alessandro Cascio describes sending Albatros a trunk manuscript, and receiving an offer requiring him to buy 300 copies of his book for around 3,000 euros. The reward? If sales (excluding his own buys, of course) reached 300 copies, he could publish a subsequent book and not have to purchase anything.

Of all the imprints, the only one that doesn't seem to be recruiting is Lastaria--but given the consistency of the business model across the rest of this company, I wouldn't be at all surprised if it plays the same game. 

Always remember: reputable traditional publishers don't require authors to pay anything or buy anything as a condition of publication. 

* Not to be confused with Europa Editions, a well-regarded New York-based independent publisher.

September 18, 2020

Dissecting a Scam: Fact & Fiction Entertainment and Literary Agency

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

In the past week, I've gotten two questions about solicitations from a literary agency called Fact & Fiction.* As I've mentioned many times on this blog, it is rare for agents to cold-call writers...but that's not to say it absolutely never happens.

Here's the solicitation.

Unlike other solicitations I've been writing about lately, this one is actually somewhat credible--at least if you don't look too closely. It mentions the writer's work (I've redacted their book title, along with their name). It provides a rationale for reaching out that's not blindingly bogus on its face. Aside from the one typo, there are no glaring English-language errors. It doesn't ask for money.

Of course, it's odd that a literary agent would boast about being top of the slush pile--since the whole point of having an agent is avoiding the slush pile. And a request that a manuscript be "professionally edited" should always spark caution (for reasons that are explained here).

Still, an eager or inexperienced writer could be pardoned for mistaking this for a serious approach. Even I, when I first saw this email, didn't immediately tag it as a scam; I thought it might be a marginal agency looking to expand its client list. There are a lot of these; since they lack contacts and expertise, they specialize in placing books with smaller publishers, including many that don't typically work with agents. Whether it's worth paying a 15% commission for placement with a publisher you could have approached on your own is an open question--but at least (most) such agencies aren't overtly fraudulent. 

Then I looked at Fact & Fiction's website


The instant I saw that last sentence, I knew I probably wasn't dealing with a marginal-but-honest agency. Book-to-screen scams--where an unscrupulous operator cold-calls writers, claiming to be able to bring their books to Hollywood's attention for enormous fees--are among the most common solicitations these days, now that the book fair display racket has become a non-starter due to the pandemic. Any time you see "book-to-screen", warning bells should start to ring. (Another red flag: Fact & Fiction's page for this supposedly robust program is...blank.)

There's more. On its About page, Fact & Fiction claims to have started up in 2005...


...yet its web domain is only 86 days old.


Perhaps that explains why Googling the agency's name (and various permutations thereof) turns up absolutely nothing, including any trace of its "satellite office in Los Angeles, California" (its Manhattan address does exist, but--surprise!--it's a virtual office.) A successful agency--especially one in business for so many years--should have a much bigger online footprint, even if it's publicity-shy. 

As for Fact & Fiction's "topnotch literary agents", who are purportedly named and pictured in this extremely bogus-looking organizational chart...they too are a big bag of nothing. Publishers Marketplace has never heard of any of them. Websearches on the more distinctive names turn up no references to agents, publishing professionals--or, in some cases, actual living humans--anywhere online. 

Also MIA: a client list, which most reputable agencies' websites will prominently feature. Conveniently, this makes it impossible to verify either the multitude of publisher "partnerships" or the august array of awards and honors touted on the agency's home page. (Psst, SFWA: they're using the Nebula logo.)

What about a sales list? Agents are usually eager to proclaim their sales; it's an indication of success and a form of advertising. But Fact & Fiction doesn't mention sales, either. 

That, however, is a recent development.

When I looked at Fact & Fiction's website on Tuesday of this week, it included a "Gallery" link to a page of book covers, mostly YA and middle grade novels, many by well-known writers such as Sarah J. Maas, Ann Aguirre, and Jennifer Echols. It wasn't explicitly stated that these were books the agency had sold--but that was definitely the implication. 


Given the degree to which Fact & Fiction was proving to be fiction rather than fact, I was dubious. I contacted one of the authors, who confirmed that they'd never heard of the agency. I also put out a tweet, which resulted in more confirmations:

I don't know if any of the authors or agents contacted Fact & Fiction themselves (there is an email address on the website), or if whoever's behind the scam watches Twitter--the many Philippines-based scamsters are well aware of me and my warnings--but when I checked in on Wednesday afternoon, poof! The "Gallery" link was gone. (Though not the page; it's apparently just the link that has been removed.)

The only thing missing from this so-fake-it's-almost-awesome picture was a demand for money...though I was sure I'd hear about that in due time. And I did--that same Wednesday, even sooner than I expected--from a writer who was asked for editing fees. Fortunately the writer smelled a rat, and was able to initiate a dispute with their credit card company to get their money back:


Here's Mr. Jan Carlo Carpio. Guess where he's from?

And here's Andie Millstone, the day after the writer got their refund, trying to salvage the scam by persuading the writer that it was all a big mistake, and their "dues" actually needed to go somewhere else:

"Partner editing firm" Beacon Books Agency is--you guessed it--one of the Philippines-based publishing and marketing scams listed in the sidebar of this blog (also in this post). It's not uncommon for the scams to operate under multiple names, and for writers recruited by one name to be routed to a differently-named company for payment.

I've amended my scam list to include Fact & Fiction and its relationship to Beacon Books Agency.

Writers, I can't say it enough. While it is very rare for reputable agents, publishers, or PR companies to phone or email authors out of the blue with offers of service, invitations to submit, claims you've been recommended by nameless book scouts or referred by Amazon (yes, I've seen this), or anything else--for scammers, solicitation is a primary recruitment tool.

Any contact of this type should make you extremely cautious. Resist the appeal to your emotions (the scammers are counting on you not doing so), and don't respond before thoroughly investigating whatever company or individual has targeted you. Carefully peruse the company's or individual's website (and be wary if they don't have one). Do a websearch; are there complaints? If there are claims of success, can you find independent evidence to corroborate them? Ask a question on social media. DM me on Twitter or drop me a line at Writer Beware. 

The best remedy for scams is not to fall victim to them in the first place.

* Not to be confused with the identically-named advertising agencybased in Boulder, CO.

September 4, 2020

Contest Beware: "Lovecraft Country" Short Story Contest


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

HBO's buzzed-about new series Lovecraft Country has spawned a short story contest: For the Love of the Craft

Co-sponsored by HBO and The Root, the contest invites writers "to pick a decade or an important moment in Black American history, and weave a tale of the monsters that litter that time." There's a $5,000 prize for the winner, along with publication of their story on The Root and mentoring from writers on the show. The submission deadline is September 18.

As always, the devil is in the details. In this case, as so often with writing competitions, that's the official contest rules. (These are only accessible via Submittable, and you must have an account.) Here's the passage that concerns me:


To break the small-print legal language down:
  • Just by submitting your entry, you agree to grant HBO and G/O Media, Inc. (The Root's parent company) an exclusive six-month license to your work. 
  • The license is "irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual, fully-paid-up and royalty-free, sub-licensable, [and] transferable", and empowers HBO and The Root "to use, publish, distribute, copy, edit, adapt, and perform your Entry or any elements thereof...online, in print, or in any other format, for any commercial or noncommercial purposes (e.g., marketing; advertising or native advertising; promotion; editorial coverage), whether related or unrelated to the Contest."
All of this is, no doubt, intended to allow HBO and The Root to market and publicize the contest, rather than to engage in the wholesale theft of rights. Nowhere in the contest description or rules is it indicated that any entries other than the winner's will be published. On the other hand, nothing in the rules prevents The Root from publishing entrants other than the winner--or bars HBO from, for instance, turning an entry into an episode. And remember, the license is "royalty-free."

Bottom line: I don't suspect nefarious intent here, but this is a very sweeping license, and there are potential unforeseen consequences. You need to be sure you understand what you're agreeing to here, and are comfortable with all that it implies. 
  • After the exclusivity period expires, all "rights, title, license, and copyright" revert back to you.
This is mentioned in The Root's contest announcement as well: "We'll retain the rights to your story for six months, after which the rights revert back to you." So while the license you've granted to your intellectual property is very expansive, it is also time-limited (note: the license does not include an explicit grant of copyright). Where publication is part of a prize, contest sponsors often require a temporary grant of rights to cover the judging period, so that entrants' works will still be fully rights-available by the time the winner or winners are chosen. That's acceptable as long as the grant expires as soon as the winner is announced (and, of course, as long as you're okay with your rights being tied up for that period of time). 

But wait--there's also this:
  • "After the Exclusivity Period, you grant to Sponsor and HBO an irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual, fully-paid-up and royalty-free, sub-licensable, transferable right and license to use the Entry as described herein."
Say what? Didn't the rules just state that all your rights revert back to you once the six-month exclusivity period is up? How can the contest sponsors be claiming those exact same rights--a claim that, don't forget, is irrevocable and perpetual and applies to every single entry--at the exact same time as they're apparently relinquishing the very same claim? The one should cancel out the other. If your rights have returned to you, the sponsors shouldn't be claiming them. If the sponsors want a perpetual claim on your rights, why include reversion language at all?

I have no idea what's really going on here. It's always possible that the post-exclusivity rights claim is a careless mistake of wording: a bit of legalese that slipped past the proofreader and shouldn't have been included. Or maybe the second rights claim is meant to be non-exclusive, and that word just got left out. If there is error, I hope HBO and The Root will promptly address it (The Root also needs to take a look at its contest announcement, which encourages writers to believe their rights revert after six months.)

At the very least, though, the rules for this contest currently include a major ambiguity that raises a number of questions and could potentially have serious consequences--most concerning of which is that, per the literal wording of the rules, simply entering the contest entails a perpetual and irrevocable--and apparently exclusive, since nothing states otherwise--grant of rights to your entry, whether you win or not. 

Also worth noting: there's nothing in the rules to guarantee that publication of the winning entry will carry the winner's name, and the Dispute Resolution clause, which bars class action, also bars disputants from claiming anything other than "actual out-of-pocket expenses (i.e. costs associated with entering this Contest)".

UPDATE 9/7/20: .The Root's contest announcement states this, which is misleading, for the reasons outlined above: 


Shouldn't The Root, or its parent company, want to provide accurate information to would-be contestants? Apparently, not so much. I've left this comment on the announcement page twice, once on 9/4 and once on 9/5:
Neither comment has been approved. When I checked just now, they were both still "pending" (for comparison, several articles posted more recently than the contest announcement have numerous approved comments.) Nor has the misleading claim about rights been corrected.

August 28, 2020

Alert: Scammers Impersonating Major Publishing Houses


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about scammers impersonating reputable literary agents. These are not isolated incidents: I have a growing file of reports and complaints about this growing phenomenon--including from writers who've lost large amounts of money.

Now publishers are being impersonated as well. Here are a couple of examples of the kind of thing I'm seeing.

Here's the pitch one author received from "Michael Smith" of "HarperCollins" (see the email address):


To pass the "1st stage of the acquisition" of their book, and move on to "an exclusive contract," the author had already been persuaded (by "agent" Arial Brown, who is as fake as this offer) to hand over more than $8,000 for a new website and YouTube video. Now, in order to proceed to the next stage, they must shell out still more cash for "Developmental Editing and Content Editing." But not to worry--all that spending is in aid of big rewards down the line:

Who wouldn't want a HUGE of money? There is, however, plenty wrong with this picture. First, HarperCollins doesn't use gmail (here is its email format). Second, it doesn't demand that authors pay for services as a pre-condition of a contract offer. Third, anyone can make a typo, but someone working for a major English-language trade publisher can reasonably be expected to write proper English--which is definitely not the case in the excerpts above. Fourth, major publishing houses, which are rigorously selective, are unlikely to consider manuscripts with multiple grammar errors and poor word use. 

Finally, the author received these payment instructions:

That's right--it's another Philippines-based publishing and marketing scam. Due to the tangled web of purported agents, web designers, and publisher representatives (as well as the author's understandable confusion), I wasn't able to determine which one. But the provenance is clear.

Here's a second HarperCollins impersonator. This one has taken more trouble to fake things up:


Editor's Press and Media is (surprise!) another Philippines-based scam (see the list in the sidebar). This is clearly a setup to enable it to soak the author for large amounts of money to re-publish and edit their book, after which the supposed offer from HarperCollins will mysteriously evaporate. 

Even if one didn't know all that, though, there's enough wrong here to ring warning bells (though many authors, dazzled by what appears to be an offer from a major publisher, will not hear them). Publishers prefer manuscripts that haven't been published before--but if they do consider taking on an already-published book, they won't demand that it be re-published so that they can then publish it a third time (this makes absolutely zero sense). Additionally, offers of publication aren't typically relayed by contract assistants, and smaller lapses (it's HarperCollins Publishers--as in the logo "Joseph" has appropriated in his signature--not HarperCollins Publisher--as in the email heading) also give the game away. Not to mention: would a staffer for HarperCollins, with its New York City address, really have a Detroit phone number? (Yes, I know that people work remotely--especially these days--but still.)


(Curious, I called the number, and got an American-accented voicemail message from "Joseph Adams with HarperCollins" inviting me to leave a message--an unusual degree of base-covering for these scams, which heavily rely on their victims not checking up on them.)

Penguin Random House is also a target for the scammers, and doubtless so are other publishers I haven't heard about yet. Bottom line: an offer from a reputable publisher should not be contingent on you spending money, plus it will most often come via a reputable literary agent who hasn't charged you any fees either. 

If it seems too good to be true, it often is.

As always, if you have questions about any offer you receive, or any service you're offered, contact Writer Beware

UPDATE 9/14/20: Here's another fake HarperCollins offer from Editor's Press and Media, for a different author and book. 


 
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