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.

June 22, 2012

More Money-Wasting "Opportunities" For Writers

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Following on my last post about how authors can waste money on promotional strategies, here are some more cash-sucking "opportunities."

Book Your Trip to Hollywood, from Outskirts Press

Self-publishing service Outskirts Press--home of some of the sillier "book marketing" services--is taking advantage of one of writers' most fevered pipe dreams with its new Book Your Trip to Hollywood service. Of course, the press release doesn't put it that way:
These services solve a real problem for many authors who dream of making it big in Hollywood. In fact, just getting Hollywood's attention is nearly impossible, but with the Book Your Trip to Hollywood suite of services from Outskirts Press, authors receive turn-key, full-service assistance with the push of a button. And with each option, authors receive the feedback and/or participation of a real Hollywood producer and production company; the final results are added to a Hollywood database that is perused by industry professionals for new projects; and exclusive efforts to option the author's book are immediately set into motion. The author doesn't have to lift a finger.
Except to pull out his or her credit card.

The first of the "suite of services," the Hollywood Book-to-Movie Treatment, costs a cool $3,299. For that, you get a 7-10 page "creative adaptation" of your book written by a screenwriter. Which screenwriter? What are his/her credits? Sorry, that info is not available.

You also get an evaluation and a 3-year optioning effort from a Hollywood production company. Which company? What films has it produced? What further compensation might be due if it does manage to get someone to option your treatment? Oh dear--Outskirts isn't telling you that, either. (The disclaimer that authors have to sign in order to buy the service mentions a "partner production company" with the initials "VM"; that's too little information even for Writer Beware's sleuthing superpowers.)

The second service, the Complete Hollywood Screenplay, has a sticker price of $1,999. Hmmm, you might be thinking; why does an entire screenplay cost less than a 7-10 page treatment? Because the $1,999 is only a downpayment, you big silly! It puts you in touch with a screenwriter (once again, no info on identities or credits) to "discuss additional details"; if you want to proceed, you'll owe an extra $9,940. (What happens if you don't want to proceed? Can you get your downpayment back? No word on that from Outskirts.)

Since buying the treatment service is a pre-requisite to buying the screenplay service, the total bill for your Hollywood pipe dream comes to $15,239. Outskirts can even claim that this is a bargain: the very similar services offered by Author Solutions will set you back over $18,000.

It hurts my heart, and my brain, to think that authors might actually shell out this kind of money for services that would likely net them zero results even if performed by skilled professionals at reasonable prices. Selling a book to Hollywood is one of the most fervent writerly ambitions; it's also one of the most unattainable. And as much as you may roll your eyes and think, "Surely no one would fall for a scheme like this," the fact is that people do--or the schemes wouldn't exist.

Living Now Book Awards, from Jenkins Group

I've written extensively on this blog about money-sucking awards programs whose principal purpose is to create income for the sponsors, rather than recognition for the entrants. Here's another one: the Living Now Book Awards.

According to its website, the Living Now Book Awards are "designed to bring increased recognition to the year's very best lifestyle books and their creators." However, they bear all the hallmarks of an income-producing awards program: a high entry fee (currently $95, increased from $75 for earlier entries; you also have to send two books), a laundry list of entry categories (30 in all); minimal prizes (winners and runners-up get a medal, plus some stickers and "awards marketing material"); and the opportunity to purchase additional merchandise (more stickers, extra medals, duplicate certificates).

The awards sponsor, Jenkins Group (an expensive publishing service provider), also conducts the Axiom Awards for business books, the IPPY Awards for general fiction and nonfiction, the eLit Awards for ebooks, and the Moonbeam Awards for children's books. Between them, these awards represent over 240 categories, with an average entry fee of $85.

If there were just 25 entrants in each category (and it's likely that the actual averages are higher: this year's IPPYs, for example, received over 5,000 entries, averaging 50 entries per category), Jenkins would gross more than $500,000...and that's not counting the purchase of extra merchandise. Explaining the entry fees, Jenkins notes that "it costs about $50K to run a good awards program." Assuming that really is the case, Jenkins is spending around $250,000 total for its awards. Even with my lowball income estimate, that's a pretty nice profit.

For tips on how to evaluate contests and awards programs, and hopefully avoid the less savory ones, see my 2010 blog post.

June 19, 2012

Author Solutions Introduces BookStub

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Author Solutions has just introduced a new marketing service called BookStub, which it describes thusly:
Loyalty card-sized BookStubs display your cover on the front side and ordering instructions on the back side. Once you distribute a BookStub, the reader can visit your title’s detail page, add your e-book to the cart and check out with a digital copy of your title.
Basically, it's like a plastic business card, with a scannable QR code that enables would-be readers to use their cell phones or tablets to access your book's order page, and a promotional code that lets them download the book for free.

I have to say that this seems like a pretty cool idea. Freebies can be a really effective marketing tool, especially for authors with multiple published books, stimulating sales not just of the free title but of other titles by the author. Imagine being able to hand out these little BookStubs at conferences or conventions or other business events, or just to people you meet who are curious about your writing. Or leaving a few at bookstores, as an ongoing promotion. The novelty value alone would be a draw.

But...and you knew this was coming, didn't you? There's a catch. The price.

Author Solutions offers three package options for the BookStub program. The cheapest, the BookStub Launch Press Release, costs $1,199. For that, you get just 20 BookStubs plus a web-optimized press release. (In Author Solutions World, that's actually a bargain--the web-optimized press release costs $1,199 all by itself [yes, my jaw was on the floor too]. In the real world, though, it's a heck of a lot of cash for 20 plastic cards, 20 free ebooks, and a press release posted to PRWeb.)

Next is the BookStub Social Media Blast, which gets you 60 BookStubs, a press release, and a Facebook fan page (the example Author Solutions offers is totally bare-bones, with no cover image and virtually no optimization; it probably took half an hour--if that--for an ASI staffer to create the account and paste in material from the author's other websites). This package will set you back a cool $2,599.

The final package, the BookStub Virtual Book Signing, provides the most BookStubs--100--plus the press release, the fan page, and the opportunity to share a hosted online "event" with three other authors. The cost: an eye-popping $3,799.

Obviously, all this stuff costs something to produce and set up, and Author Solutions needs to make money. But the prices seem truly outlandish for what authors actually get--and why can't authors just buy the BookStubs by themselves, without the dubiously useful extras? Online press releases, for instance, are among the least effective of all book promotion strategies. And it's not hard to set up a Facebook fan page yourself; heaven knows the Internet is awash in free advice on how to do so.

I do think BookStubs are a nifty notion--but in my opinion, they'd need to cost a lot less to be worth an author's hard-earned cash.

June 13, 2012

Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against PublishAmerica

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

EDITED 9/12/12 TO ADD: This lawsuit has been dismissed. See my followup post.
I can't count the number of questions I've received over the years from unhappy PublishAmerica authors, wondering whether a class action lawsuit against PA has been/might be/ever will be filed. Frankly, I would have bet against it, given the cost, the difficulty of gathering plaintiffs, and the ambiguities of PA's business model.

Now I get to eat my words.

On June 11, 2012, a class action summons and complaint was filed in Maryland District Court in Baltimore against PublishAmerica LLLP, by plaintiffs Darla Yoos, Edwin McCall, and Kerry Levine (Case Number 12-cv-1696). The full complaint can be viewed here. Attachments include the contracts for the three plaintiffs.

Quoting from the Introduction to the complaint--this will all sound very familiar to long-time PA observers:
Defendant PublishAmerica is a book publisher that  portrays itself as "a traditional, royalty paying publisher." But unlike traditional publishers, which profit from the sale of books, defendant profits from its own clients, i.e., the authors who submit works for publication by defendant. Defendant lures these authors in by promising to publish their book at no cost, and it makes false and misleading representations that it will promote their books and support the authors' efforts to sell their own books. But this is not the case.

Instead, once the authors sign the contract, which gives defendant the rights to their book for seven to ten years, defendant does nothing constructive to promote their books, but instead offers various promotion packages on a fee-for-service basis....These services, which are either misrepresented or never carried out, are not reasonably designed to promote class members' books....

Defendant provides very poor editing services, is slow to respond to book orders, and it routinely overprices the books it publishes. This is no accident. Defendant will only lower the price of its clients' books to a competitive rate for a $399 fee. These practices make it difficult for even the most enterprising authors to promote their own books.

Defendant is not responsive to inquiries from its clients, or worse it is dismissive or belligerent.

Like plaintiffs, thousands of other aspiring authors who signed up with PublishAmerica have become demoralized because the publishing contract appears to be little more than a pretext for selling dubious services...These authors also feel trapped because PublishAmerica owns the rights to their books for seven to ten years. This presents a Hobson's choice for the authors: either throw good money after bad for suspect promotional services or abandon the book that was a labor of love.
The complaint is long, but worth reading in its entirety. Among other things, it alleges that PA makes money off its authors while billing itself as a traditional publisher, requires authors to pay for "usual and customary marketing that any reputable publisher would do as a matter of course," offers "services that are not reasonably designed to promote book sales" (the complaint includes numerous examples of PA's marketing solicitations, including the "Hey Amazon" banner I noted in my recent BEA Report, for which authors had to pay $99), removes negative comments from its website and "attacks the credibility of its detractors," and "duped" the three plaintiffs with, among other things, "bogus services" and books "riddled with errors."

The complaint seeks "a declarative judgment that defendant's publishing contracts violate the Maryland Consumer Protection Act," including the MCPA's prohibition against deceptive trade practices. It asks the court to certify the class action, return publication rights to the three plaintiffs and other members of the class who so desire, allow plaintiffs and the class to recover damages, allow plaintiffs and the class to recover the costs of the suit, require PublishAmerica to pay restitution to the defendants and the class, and grant "further relief as may be determined to be just," including punitive damages.

A jury trial is demanded.

Per PACER, a Notice of Appearance for the plaintiffs was filed electronically on June 12 by John B. Isbister of Tydings & Rosenberg LLP (a Baltimore law firm). The complaint also mentions Daniel S Katz of the same firm.

Interestingly, the complaint is also signed by Steve Berman and Barbara Mahoney of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, a high-profile Seattle law firm involved, among other things, with the recent ebook price-fixing litigation against Apple and several Big Six publishers. The complaint notes that a pro hac vice motion has yet to be filed for Berman and Mahoney (this is a motion by an attorney in a given jurisdiction to admit an attorney not licensed in that jurisdiction to a case), and such motions aren't always granted--but Hagens Berman's presence in the case confirms that this is no frivolous endeavor, and suggests that big guns will shortly be turned PublishAmerica's way.

I'll be following this as it develops.

EDITED TO ADD: I'm getting lots of questions about how to participate in the lawsuit. I don't know the answer, but I'd suggest that authors contact the law firm that's acting for the plaintiffs:

Tydings & Rosenberg, LLC
100 East Pratt Street, 26th Floor
Baltimore MD 21202
Telephone: 410-752-9700

EDITED TO ADD: Hagens Berman now has information on its website about the PA lawsuit, with contact information for the firm:
Authors who believe they may qualify as part of the proposed class may contact Hagens Berman by calling (206) 623-7292 or by emailing the firm at You can also contact the firm online by clicking here.

June 8, 2012

BEA Report

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

BEA 2012 was fantastic! I got home Wednesday evening--I'd debated spending an extra day, but now I'm glad I didn't because I woke up Thursday with a migraine and spent much of the day with an icepack on my head.

The fun began Monday morning with the Independent Book Bloggers Awards ceremony, held as part of the BEA Bloggers Conference. It was great meeting the other winners, as well as representatives of the Awards sponsors, Tina Jordan of the AAP and Kyusik Chung of Goodreads. I stupidly forgot my camera, so I wasn't able to take pictures, but others were more prepared, including Susan Rodarme of Insatiable Booksluts--here's her photo of the gorgeous (and EXTREMELY heavy) award we all received.

Tina took us to lunch at the Spice Market, a cool restaurant in the Meatpacking District. Taking advantage of a brief respite from the rain, I separated from the group and walked back to the Javits Center on the High Line, an old rail line that has been turned into an astonishing aerial park with simply amazing plantings. Total gardening geek that I am, it was bliss.

A BEA attendee that didn't need a badge
Back at Javits, I had the chance to attend afternoon sessions of the Bloggers Conference and to do some networking with other bloggers. Then it was off to the Ink48 Hotel to meet with my wonderful editor, Melanie Kroupa. We've talked on the phone scores of times as Passion Blue has made its way toward publication, but this is the first time we've met in the flesh, and it was great to snatch a quiet hour to get to know each other better.

Later, we ascended to the Press Lounge to attend the Amazon cocktail party, a packed and lively event where I had the pleasure of meeting Marshall Cavendish and Amazon Children's Publishing staff, including Marshall Cavendish publisher Margery Cuyler and Amazon Children's Publishing associate publisher Tim Ditlow.

Me (on left) and Melanie Kroupa
On Tuesday, I did remember to bring my camera...but forgot to take pictures of the SFWA booth (duh), where I spent the morning representing Writer Beware. Ann and I have repped WB at BEA before, but this is the first time SFWA has officially attended. The booth was extremely successful, with a steady stream of people stopping by with questions and comments, and the author signings very well-attended. I was able to say hi to some folks I've known for some time online, but have never met never face-to-face, including Mark Coker of Smashwords.

Isn't she striking? I adore the cover.
I was also able to visit the Amazon Children's Publishing booth, where ARCs of Passion Blue were on display. It's the first time I've seen it in book form. As exciting as the digital transition is, I feel a bit sorry for authors of the future, whose books may never become physical objects--there really is nothing like holding your book in your hands for the first time. This is my eighth published novel, and it never gets old. Apparently the ARCs were flying out of the booth--toward noon I sent a librarian over to pick one up and she returned to tell me they were all gone.

PublishAmerica challenges Amazon
Tuesday afternoon I walked the exhibition, with a tote bag that grew heavier and heavier (there were plenty of freebies, notably at the Amazon booths, where they were giving out ARCs like popcorn), and feet that grew tireder and tireder. As much as I enjoy checking out the booths of the legitimate attendees, I especially enjoy picking out the booths of publishers and others about whom Writer Beware has received complaints. There weren't as many of these this year as last, but there were a few, including PublishAmerica, which is there every year. Last year their booth was pretty sparse, but this year they've jazzed it up with big posters.

I also enjoy the oddities, of which there are a fair number, mostly at the fringes of the show. Before I left for BEA, my husband or my mother (can't remember which) asked me if this was the kind of conference where people dressed up in costume. "Oh no," I replied. "This is a strictly professional event for the publishing community. No costumes at BEA." But I had to eat my words, because not only was SFWA set up next to a booth with a dancing Hubble telescope (it had big white gloves, just like the Hamburger Helper Helping Hand), I also saw, in quick succession, a pair of angels and a blue-haired alien who looked like an extra from Barbarella. (The alien stopped to say hi to the Hubble, which seemed disconcerted; I tried, but couldn't get my camera out in time.)

Me at the JVNLA party
Tuesday evening I attended the JVNLA BEA party (their Facebook page has lots of pictures). I've been with JVNLA, a very long time; Jean Naggar took me on as a client when I was just eighteen. The agency's offices are located in a gracious brownstone on the Upper East Side with a lovely courtyard garden at the back, and nearly every wall is lined with shelves crammed with clients' books. I got the chance to say hi to agency staff, including my beautiful and savvy agent, Jessica Regel, and to meet other clients, including the multi-talented and vivacious Adrienne Kress, a fellow AW regular.

Wednesday morning I spent in the SFWA booth again, then left for a lunch date, then returned for more floor-walking. Whew! All in all, a very successful show, both for me personally and professionally, and for SFWA.

Oooooh....vewy scawy!
Last but not least...I'm sure it will surprise no one to learn that the scammers behind hate blog The Write Agenda (whose heads collectively exploded when they found out I'd won one of the IBBA Awards) were nowhere in evidence, despite their deep dark threats of ninja action. Possibly they're invisible ninjas--they need to protect their anonymity, after all.

TWA's Ray Bradbury Commemorative Book Burning

They did find a unique way of commemorating the death of Ray Bradbury, though.

Is this what editors do when they get laid off? (Seen on East 50th St.)

June 1, 2012

Judge Grants Class Status to Authors in Authors Guild v. Google Lawsuit

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

An important legal ruling was handed down yesterday by Judge Denny Chin in the five-year-old Authors Guild v. Google class action lawsuit over Google's scanning of millions of in-copyright books.

(A bit of history on the dispute: Google has argued that the scanning--intended to build a the world's biggest digital library--as well as the display of snippets of text from the scanned books, is fair use under copyright law, while the Authors Guild holds that the scans create new editions, for which copyright holders' permission should have been sought. A sweeping--and widely criticized--settlement in the case was rejected last year by Judge Chin.)

Google had sought to have the Authors Guild (and, in a separate lawsuit, the American Society of Media Photographers) dismissed from the case, arguing that the group didn't have standing to sue. Judge Chin disagreed, and granted class certification to authors in the Authors Guild suit.

In his decision, Judge Chin dismissed Google's arguments against class certification, concluding:
Class action is the superior method for resolving this litigation. It is, without question, more efficient and effective than requiring thousands of authors to sue individually. Requiring this case to be litigated on an individual basis would risk disparate results in nearly identical suits and exponentially increase the cost of litigation...Class action, by contrast, would achieve economies of time and effort, resolving common legal and factual issues "without sacrificing procedural fairness or bringing about other undesirable results."
The Authors Guild released the following statement:
Our book-scanning lawsuit against Google cleared a major hurdle today, as Judge Denny Chin certified the class of U.S. authors...

The class of authors includes all U.S. authors and their heirs with a copyright interest in books scanned by Google as part of its Library Project. Google has scanned 12 million books in that project, the majority of which are believed to be protected by copyright. Books from all over the world were copied, but U.S. works predominate.

Google's liability for copyright infringement has not yet been determined by the court. Google's primary defense to infringement is that its actions are protected by fair use. Judge Chin is scheduled to hear summary judgment motions on the case in September.

If Google is found liable for infringement, copyright law prescribes statutory damages for willful infringement of not less than $750 and not more than $30,000 per work.
Google also released a statement:
As we've said all along, we are confident that Google Books is fully compliant with copyright law. Today's decision doesn't determine the underlying merits of the case, nor does it resolve the lawsuit.
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