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.

January 31, 2014

WinePress Publishing: Scandal-Plagued Self-Publishing Service Closes Its Doors

 Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

An article in PW last week caught my eye
WinePress Publishing, a Christian self-publishing company, has closed its doors, according to an announcement yesterday on the company’s Web site. The house had been plagued in recent years with accusations of fraud, complaints from authors and former employees, and financial problems. WinePress itself had filed a number of lawsuits against its critics and unhappy authors.

Last May, WinePress staff member Malcolm Fraser was convicted on two counts of first-degree child rape and two counts of first-degree molestation of a child. Fraser was a staff member of WinePress Publishing and a pastor of Sound Doctrine Church in Enumclaw, Wash., which owns WinePress. Fraser avowed his innocence, as did WinePress executive publisher Timothy Williams, who retired as senior pastor from Sound Doctrine Church five years ago and stated that no church funds had been used in Fraser’s defense.
WinePress's announcement is here.

The PW article goes on to detail alleged improper use of funds--Timothy Williams and his family were apparently drawing six-figure salaries while authors, employees and vendors weren't getting paid--as well as lawsuit threats by company staff to authors who questioned or complained.

WinePress attributes its demise to "a continuing onslaught of destructive lies and gossip"--but wow, check out this WinePress-owned website (the URL is registered to Williams and Sound Doctrine) that's almost entirely devoted to discrediting WinePress co-founder Athena Dean, who blew the whistle on accounting irregularities and claims she was forced out of the company by Williams.

WinePress was also aggressive in pursuing its critics. It sued Mark Levine, author of The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, accusing him of defamation for giving it a poor rating (it lost). It threatened literary agent Chip McGregor after he made a comment on Facebook, accusing him of being part of a conspiracy to interfere with its business.

The child rape accusations, as well as concerns that Sound Doctrine Church functions like a cult, add a sensational aspect to this tale--but otherwise it's a sadly familiar story. Greedy owners appropriate company funds while stiffing authors and attempting to silence critics, and run the company into the ground. Where have we heard that before?

Much of WinePress's website still remains online, including its bizarre "No Gossip Policy" (which I'll bet was enacted to plug staff leaks about company problems) and its list of company advantages, which claims, among other things, that "Your book will gain respect and credibility."

WinePress authors are also being offered the opportunity to port their book projects to Deep River Books (formerly VMI Publishers)--another expensive Christian "partner" (a.k.a. fee-charging) publisher that, among other things, runs writing contests that result in solicitations to buy its services.
We realize that most of you have already invested thousands of dollars in the process. It is understandable if you feel angry or frustrated. Our goal is to offer our publishing services in the least expensive way possible to help you finish your book.
Deep River says it isn't receiving any kind of financial consideration from WinePress, and that there's no connection between the two companies:
[P]lease understand that Deep River Books is not being paid any money by WinePress....We are not the agents of WinePress nor do we have any formal connection with them. They decided to endorse us simply because we are a Christian publishing company that offered to assist their authors to the best of our ability.
However, I can't help wondering whether the consideration might be going the other way--whether WinePress might have been promised a percentage or a finder's fee.

January 23, 2014

Story Surgeon: An App For Copyright Infringement

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Here at Writer Beware, we love the weird stuff--the nutty, fring-y, even, dare I say, totally freaking insane things that are always cropping up at the boundaries of the publishing world, often spawned by people who haven't really taken the time to think things through.

Or maybe they're just idiots. Hard to tell sometimes.

So...playing now on Kickstarter, a project called Story Surgeon (I've embedded a screenshot at the bottom of this post to immortalize the concept). Created by aspiring author Ryan Hancock, Story Surgeon is:
An eBook notation app that saves your personal edits as a separate file, and can be shared with anyone who owns the original eBook.
In other words, Story Surgeon is an app that enables anyone to alter a published book in any way they like, and spread the alterations around at will.
Although it will be a complicated app to develop, the idea is simple. Buy an eBook in ePub format and download it to your iPad. Download the Story Surgeon app. (It will be free on release day and probably many days thereafter.) Then you can use the app to read the original eBook (booooring) or make your own person [sic] changes to the text. (OH YEAH!)

Use the "find and replace" tool to substitute bad words, cut out whole portions of the book you thought were lame, or completely rewrite the novel with you as the main character.

Once your filter is perfect, you have the option to upload it into Drop Box and post your link on the Story Surgeon General Blog. (As we grow we'll get our own servers and streamline the sharing process.)

The filter is kept separate from the eBook and no copyrights will be infringed upon. Anyone who uses your link and downloads the free filter will have to have purchased the original eBook. Filters will always be free.
As an author, I'm so very relieved to know that even if random people use an app to create altered versions of my books and post links to them on the Internet, my copyright won't be infringed upon. I'm also thrilled to know that there's a new promotional tool at my fingertips:
For authors, making fun filters of your already published book is a great way to generate buzz and get more people purchasing the eBook.
As yet, Story Surgeon exists only in Ryan Hancock's imagination--which is why he's trying to raise $15,000 on Kickstarter, offering backer rewards that are, if possible, even loonier than the app itself. For instance, if you donate $10, you can "submit the titles of TWO books that you would like to seen [sic] "PG-ified"---OR---If you're not interested in having books cleaned up, you may instead submit a filter idea. (Such as Hunger Games rewritten with Harry Potter characters, etc.)"

Or, for big spenders who are willing to cough up $200, "the app creator will completely rewrite a book of your choice (up to 600 pages), making major changes such as genre switches, adding you as a completely new main character, or adding your boss as the villain's simpering sidekick. You will also receive a signed copy of his YA novel when it is published."

Hancock explains the genesis of his misguided idea on his blog (apparently it's all Patrick Rothfuss's fault). He has also issued a press release, in which he reiterates his woefully inaccurate view of what constitutes copyright infringement, launched a Facebook page, and is promoting his project on Twitter (which is how I heard about it, thanks to a tip from a literary agent. Moral of story: if you're planning on promoting copyright infringement, don't follow publishing people).

Story Surgeon's Kickstarter has been live for about a week, and as of this writing has raised $170.

ADDENDUM: I really didn't expect this post to generate so much discussion (see below for links to some of it, and see also the comments section). I’ll admit that when I wrote it, I was only peripherally aware of apps and software for re-editing/re-mixing video. If I'd been more familiar with these, I might not have been quite so hard on Mr. Hancock’s concept.

A number of responses to this post have argued that Mr. Hancock's app isn't infringing, since all it does is allow readers to create a series of edits for private use. However, that doesn’t diminish my concern about what people may do with those altered versions. Whatever Mr. Hancock’s intentions for his app, he can’t control the actions of his users–and while it may not be infringement for people to privately create filters to change the books they read and how they read them, it _is_ infringement if they then find a way to circulate those altered versions.

I’m going to quote here from one of the comments on this post, because I think it states the problem very precisely:

“But there’s a further wrinkle, and this is where I suspect matters become more dangerous. The kinds of substitutional texts Story Surgeon will generate strike me as scarily similar to texts that have been labeled as plagiarism by both fannish and professional observers. Let me give you three names: Cassie Claire (Harry Potter fanfic and a Pamela Dean novel); Kaavya Viswanathan (teen author who sold a novel to Little, Brown that was pulled shortly after its release); and Cassie Edwards (a now-notorious name among pro romance authors).

Which invokes a Catch-22 situation. If a Story Surgeon alt-text is circulated with the original author’s byline, that byline misrepresents the alt-text as the work of the original author, which is arguably fraud. But if that same text is circulated with the byline of the alt-text creator, I think the original author can call that plagiarism. And that’s what they called a “no-win scenario” in the Star Trek movies….”

So to my mind, even if Mr. Hancock’s app and the filters it generates are legal and non-infringing, they present major potential for infringing use.

EDITED TO ADD: Thanks to one of the comments on this post, an interesting article on how--maybe--pastiche-creating software might skirt copyright laws.

EDITED AGAIN TO ADD: This post has led to several additional posts about Story Surgeon. Chris Meadows points out its similarities to programmed re-editing software, and suggests that Story Surgeon may constitute fair use. "Even if making fan edits of books was illegal, template or not, the app would seem to have plenty of non-infringing uses." Nate Hoffelder argues flatly that I'm wrong, and that Story Surgeon "is not copyright infringement any more than taking a pair of scissors to a paper book and then explaining online how to duplicate your efforts." Mick Rooney delves into the moral ambiguities, questioning whether Ryan Hancock has missed a crucial point: "We buy what we like, what we identify with—not what we want to peer over the garden wall at, tease ourselves with, and then decide how we can best sanitise it for the joy and pleasure of others."

EDITED YET AGAIN TO ADD: Here is Ryan Hancock's response to my blog post. "Despite the heated opposition, I believe this app to be legal and what's more, to be of benefit to authors and families in particular."

January 21, 2014

Opening a Vein: Agent Artery

 Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

 Last week a literary agent contacted me on Twitter. "Ever heard of these folks?" she asked. "They've been spamming us all day."

The link she gave me led to a service called Agent Artery.
Agent Artery is a service with both writers and agents in mind, helping literary agencies and agents manage and keep on top of requests for representation from new authors, and helping writers to easily keep track of their submissions.

Our system has been designed to provide both agents and authors with better tracking and processing when it comes to managing submissions.
As readers of this blog will know, such services--all of which purport to give you an advantage by streamlining the submission process with a one-stop-shopping approach--are nothing new. I've written a number of times about query blast services (and why agents and editors hate them), and also about manuscript submission services and why they're not only unlikely to land you an agent or publisher, but may result in contacts from fee-charging bottom-feeders. Agent directories and listing services can be a better bet, at least as far as utility is concerned, especially if they let you organize and track your submissions--but they're tools, not shortcuts.

Agent Artery (could they have come up with a less appealing name?) is UK-based, and at first glance looks like a cross between a submission service and a listing service. It lets you search its "comprehensive agency directory" (and indeed, its agent directory is replete with the names of extremely reputable UK agents, though the information supplied about each agency leaves a lot to be desired). It lets you upload your submission materials and submit them to agencies of your choice with a simple click. It lets you track your submissions, and sends you an alert in the event of a rejection or a request.

So where's the problem? Well....Here's one of Agent Artery's actual submission emails, with identifying information redacted to spare embarrassment to the author.
Date: 9 January 2014 17:50:33 GMT
To: [agency name redacted]
Subject: New Representation request / [book title redacted] by [author name redacted]
Reply to:


[Author name redacted] is interested in representation by [agency name redacted] for their manuscript:

Submission details:
  • [Book title redacted]
  • Word Count: 444
  • Genres: Crime
Cover Letter:

Dear Madam,
I am a twenty-three year old thriller writer.
With a high and true sense of imagination, I have painstakingly created this crime thriller, [book title redacted] which goes a long way to provide a gateway into a world of crime where you feel the pain of the characters.
Enjoy the upload and i hope to hear from you soon.
Yours faithfully,
[author name redacted]

  • [redacted--three short paragraphs with grammatical and other errors]
Download sample chapters:
  • Download sample chapters [link redacted]
Learn more about our service:
  • View full submission details [link redacted--leads to the author's submission page]
Should you receive this?
If there is a better contact at [agency name redacted] to receive this type of submission, please let us know:
Agent Artery


  • Agent Artery is a service with both writers and agents in mind, helping literary agencies and agents manage and keep on top of requests for representation from new authors,and helping writers to easily keep track of their submissions. To learn more please visit
Even beyond the unacceptable word count and the issues with grammar and the bizarre salutation, this just screams "spam."

According to the agent who contacted me, some of the cover letters were better done. Even so, no reputable agent is likely to pay attention to something like this--especially if they're getting it five times a day. Additionally, the agent told me that her agency hadn't agreed to be listed in Agent Artery's database (which uses material copied directly from the agency's website), or for Agent Artery to use its logo.

Bottom line: Agent Artery may seem like a shortcut, but it's actually a dead end. 

Agent Artery is run by Blue Compass Limited (company founder Chris Timms appears on Agent Artery in a mildly ridiculous fashion) which "owns & operates a portfolio of Recruitment and Networking websites across the full spectrum of the UK's Arts and Media industry."

January 9, 2014

Scribd's New Ebook Subscription Service: Partnering with Publishers, Profiting from Piracy

 Posted by Michael Capobianco for Writer Beware

I was contemplating what to write for my first Writer Beware blog post, when a subject popped up out of the blue, packed with all kinds of fascinating questions.

Some of you may remember when SFWA tangled with the online “digital library” Scribd back in 2007. Scribd was loaded with unauthorized uploads of copyrighted material, but SFWA screwed up big time by sending a sort-of DMCA notice (it wasn’t really) to get works by many sf writers removed from the site. It was an embarrassment for SFWA, and over time made it less and less likely that the organization would do anything directly about illegal uploads, even though a plan had been developed to do so for members who had specifically authorized SFWA to act as their agent.

Since everything to do with online piracy left a decidedly bad taste in my mouth, I decided I would not go looking for illegally uploaded copies of my or other authors’ works, and I didn’t check to see if Scribd was following through on the promises it made at the time to provide real-time checking of works uploaded to the service.

Jump forward six years to now. The subject of Scribd came up on a SFWA forum as part of a controversy that I needn’t go into here, and I decided that it was finally time to check it out.

Six years has made a big difference. Scribd has set out to become a full-fledged bookstore to compete with Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and takes it one step farther with the addition of an all-you-can-eat subscription service that allows access to an unlimited number of ebooks for $8.99 a month. They are now partnering with HarperCollins and various other publishers, such as Smashwords, E-Reads, and Rosetta Books, with the promise of more to come. They cover a lot of ground; not only do they sell ebooks and subscriptions, they offer what look like unauthorized “previews” of many other books, with links to authorized retailers.

But finally, beneath all the new things, the old Scribd--offering not-necessarily-legal user uploads of copyrighted works--is still there. Only now Scribd has monetized them, since you can only see a “preview” of the material for free, and must be a paid subscriber to access the whole unauthorized upload.

How did this happen without creating much of a ripple in the author community?

Well, first of all, it happened recently. The subscription service started on October 1. Details of what the deal looks like appeared for the first time in a Smashwords email and blog post just as I was writing this blog post.

A number of questions about such a service immediately spring to mind, and the Smashwords post answers some of them--assuming that the deal is consistent across the various publishers. When authors sign up for the deal directly, we can see how their royalties will be computed, but there’s another level of complexity when there’s a publisher acting as intermediary.

How much will HarperCollins authors see from the subscription program? HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray told Publisher’s Lunch, “We have negotiated very hard, to the point where if the whole business went this way, we and our authors would be very pleased …[this is] the exact opposite of the music industry’s subscriptions models. The revenues that go to our authors is up, somewhat significantly.” So can we assume authors will be getting 25% of the take, as they do from ebooks? Or slightly more? Will the payments be broken out on royalty statements so authors can see how much money they are making from Scribd subscriptions? Most importantly, do publishers have the contractual right to sell authors’ books this way at all?

Is there, indeed, even a difference, except that (counting the first 10% free preview) reading 30% of a book is considered a sale, reading 29% is considered 1/10 of a sale, and reading 15% is no sale?
Extensive book previews have become the norm, and they’re apparently authorized by publishers based on vague wording in the authors’ contracts about promotional excerpts. But here we have 29% of the book available for reading with no compensation due the author, unless there are nine more browsers who read enough of the book to count as a browse but not enough to count as a full sale.

Complicated enough for you? Let’s break it down a little further. Since it doesn't matter if you read the first 10% or not, that isn't even part of the equation. If I’m understanding the Smashwords/Scribd deal correctly, it specifies:

First 10% - Free. Doesn’t count toward total.
10% - 15% read - No payment.
15% - 30% read - Browse credit. 10 browses equals 1 sale.
30% - 100% read - Full sale.

While for novels, this may not seem onerous, for non-fiction and short fiction anthologies it can become easily become problematical.

Just for the moment, let’s assume it is an okay deal for many authors. It’s tremendously better than the deal offered to musicians by music subscription services like Pandora and Spotify. Even so, this paradigm switch should be scrutinized with great care. It’s another instance of rich corporations expanding what can be done with authors’ works without consulting them, defining terms in such a way that no one really understands how it affects authors’ copyrights, and doing so based on language in contracts that never anticipated an e-book subscription service. Authors need to sit up and take notice, and protest if they think their rights are being abrogated. If it’s not a great deal--which, let’s face it, is likely, given the insistence of the major publishers on paying at most a 25% net royalty rate on e-books--all the more reason for concern.

Which brings us to Scribd’s unauthorized uploads of copyrighted material. If you’d told me a couple of weeks ago that my first Writer Beware blog post would be about ebook piracy, I would have laughed. But it really looks as though Scribd has gone even farther into a very questionable area of monetizing the pirated books in its library, in two ways.

Firstly, they apparently only allow full access to pirated works to paid subscribers. Here's a screenshot of the email I received after checking the Scribd site for unauthorized uploads of SFWA-related copyrighted material:

As you can see, this unauthorized copy of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1, was illegally uploaded by Vladimir George Anghell, and Scribd is using it as bait for a 7-day free trial of their subscription service, that will, of course, transition automatically to a paid subscription if I do not cancel.

Think about it. All across the Scribd website, there are illegally uploaded, copyrighted files that you can only read in their entirety if you start paying Scribd, which doesn’t pay authors anything for those uploads. Almost as bad are the advertisements displayed next to pirated works.

Six years ago, Scribd initiated a system to monitor uploads and compare them to a database of copyrighted works, with the promise to delete anything that matched. It may be working, it may not, but there’s still an enormous amount of pirated work available there, and you have to ask yourself, do you want to support a site like Scribd by having your work sold there? If Scribd has to pay out royalties for an authorized version of a book, but the equivalent unauthorized upload acts as subscription bait and they need never pay out anything for access to it, where is their motivation to clean the site of the unauthorized versions?

Other companies are working on the book subscription model, Oyster Books being the most prominent, without the taint of unauthorized uploads. The deal Oyster Books offers to authors actually looks a little better, with pay-out occurring at 10% read rather than 20%.

It’s too early to tell if the subscription model will catch on and become a significant source of revenue for authors...but it just might. Future author contracts should treat these types of sales separately from straight ebook sales, and authors should be able to negotiate subscription terms independently from ebook sales. Contract language shouldn’t be re-purposed when technological changes affect the publishing world. Instead, new terms should be negotiated.

As for Scribd, is this the next step in the evolution of ebook publishing, in which a corporation simultaneously profits from pirated works and makes deals with traditional publishers? However subscription services work out, don’t count the Scribd model out, because it’s building on its large base of copyright scofflaws to create the most ruthless and author-unfriendly of them all.

EDITED 1/10/13 TO ADD: Via Publishers Weekly, Scribd's Andrew Weinstein has responded to this blog post, acknowledging the presence of pirated content on Scribd and outlining the steps the company says it's taking to combat the problem.


January 6, 2014

Year in Review: Writer Beware's Top Blog Posts of 2013

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Welcome to 2014! (I've been hibernating for the past week, working on revisions for my latest novel, so this is actually the first time I've written out the date.)

Every January, I look back over this blog and pick out what I think were the most useful, interesting, and/or important posts of the previous year. Here goes.


Vanity Publisher Vantage Press Closes its DoorsFounded in 1949 as a classic print vanity publisher, Vantage attempted to adapt to the 21st century by re-branding itself as a self-publishing service, while still charging the same enormous fees. But at the end of 2012 it did a bunk--closing its doors without notice and leaving authors, who in some cases had paid thousands of dollars for books that were never produced, high and dry.


Second-Class Contracts at Random House's Hydra Digital Imprint: Launched with much fanfare in late 2012, Random House's digital-only genre imprints (Hydra, Alibi, and Flirt) seemed to offer new opportunity to writers with their willingness to consider unagented manuscripts. Unfortunately, the deal terms of their contracts were exploitive. Writer Beware broke this story, which subsequently went viral, causing Random House to revise the contracts and offer considerably better terms.

Solicitation Alert: Close-Up TV News: This faux news show charges thousands of dollars to produce "news segments" that aren't actually broadcast anywhere that anyone is likely to see them. It's currently soliciting authors to pay $5,000 to appear on its "talk radio show."

Christian Writers Guild Publishing: Best selling author Jerry B. Jenkins ventures into vanity publishing with a service he dubs "come-alongside publishing." Give him credit for inventing a new euphemism for pay-to-play. CWG will set you back a cool $9,995.


Another Class Action Lawsuit Launched Against PublishAmericaLike the first, ill-fated class action suit against infamous vanity publisher PublishAmerica, this one alleged fraud, unjust enrichment, and breach of contract. Initially it looked as if it might have more teeth than the first suit, but in the end it, too, fizzled, with PublishAmerica agreeing to settlement terms. I'm still gathering information on this (very difficult, because gag orders are involved) and hope to have an update soon.


Class Action Lawsuit Launched Against Author Solutions Inc.: The same firm that took on PublishAmerica also launched a class action against Author Solution and its parent, Penguin, alleging breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and various violations of business laws. As of this writing, the suit is still ongoing, with both sides wrangling over procedural matters.

Outrageous French Copyright Grab: ReLIRE, a massive database of out-of-print works in French, went live in early 2013, the result of a new French law that, under the guise of dealing with the pressing issue of orphan works, implements a truly massive transfer of rights from authors to the state. This doesn't just affect French authors; the law covers any French-language books, including books in other languages translated into French.


Author Concerns and Complaints at Crimson RomanceTrouble at another digital-only imprint, with authors citing late or missing royalty payments, hasty editing, and the launch of a subscription service not included in the contract. See the comments for examples. Crimson has pledged to address the problems.


Publisher Storm Warnings: There were lots of these this month, including Spectacular Productions and Author Solutions' Balboa Press Noble Romance Publishing, Vanilla Heart Publishing, and Eternal Press/Damnation Books; and Iconic Publishing/Jonquil Press/Red Lizard Press.

Sandpiper Publicity: A ripoff PR agency, which in an earlier incarnation posted fake testimonials from well-known authors, returns under a different name.

American Book Publishing/Alexis Press/All Classic Books/Atlantic National Books: Long-time deceptive vanity publisher American Book Publishing (the subject of an Alert at Writer Beware) branched out in 2013 with a network of satellite publishers, bogus industry organizations, and fake personas. Luckily ABP's owner, Cheryl Nunn, wasn't smart about it, enabling Writer Beware to unmask her. Exposed, she ran for cover, folding the publishers and making a last attempt to hit her authors up for cash.


Ann C. Crispin, Writer Beware co-founder and my dear friend, passed away in September after a long illness. Her tireless work with Writer Beware on behalf of writers everywhere stands as an enduring legacy. I miss her every day.


The Great Erotica Panic of 2013: A media expose of self-published rape and incest porn ebooks precipitated a media frenzy in the UK, causing online retailers, including Amazon, to pull titles from their stores (sometimes in error, based on too-inclusive algorithms). There are many lessons to be learned from this, but it also is, or should be, a reality check for self-publishers who think they're launching their work into a sphere of unlimited freedom.

Early Termination Fees in Publishing Contracts: A Cautionary Tale: A publisher that tried to hold unhappy authors hostage with the threat of huge termination fees if they pulled their books early, and also attempted to use the fees to make a quick buck on the back end. Good reason to avoid publishers whose contracts include termination fees.


The Horror Writers Association Adds its Support to Writer Beware: We're very proud that HWA is now one of our sponsors, along with the Mystery Writers of America. Our principal sponsor, as always, is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Awards Profiteering: The Book Festival Empire of JM Northern Media: I've written a lot on this blog about fake awards and dodgy contests, but this network of faux book festivals, which relentlessly solicits writers to enter its high-entry-fee competitions, is one of the most insidious and prolific.


Crowdfunded Anthologies: Concerns for Authors: Anthologies are pretty much dead at the big publishing houses, but they continue to thrive in the small press world and with genre readers, at least judging by the number of anthology projects that appear on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter. If you're thinking of submitting to--or supporting--one of these, there are a number of cautions to consider.

Writer Beware lost its co-founder, Ann Crispin, in 2013, but we also gained a wonderful new member: author and two-time SFWA President--and Ann's husband--Michael Capobianco. With Michael on board, Writer Beware is poised to enter 2014 stronger than ever.

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