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.

July 26, 2015

Writer Beware Blog on Temporary Hiatus

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last Sunday, my elderly mother, who's fighting cancer, fell in her apartment and broke three ribs. Cue nightmare scenario: 911 call...12 hours in the emergency room...confusion over hospital admission...fighting the massive hospital bureaucracy that wanted to discharge her ASAP despite the fact that she couldn't even get out of bed was the week from hell.

Stubbornly independent, my mom still lives alone, with a ton of assistance from me and my husband, my brother, and family friends. But as much help as she's needed over the past two years, now she's going to need even more. So the Writer Beware blog has to take a back seat. You may see a guest post or two (I have a great one scheduled for the first week in August), and Michael Capobianco may stop by with a post. But I'm going to be scarce around here for a while, and you won't see me much on Twitter or Facebook, either. 

I will still be answering email, so please don't hesitate to write to me: beware [at]

Thanks, and see you (hopefully) soon.

July 15, 2015

Pay-to-Play Alert: #WORLDCLASS Magazine

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Authors: have you received an unsolicited email from a "talent scout" at #WORLDCLASS Magazine pitching an interview and/or cover feature? Here's what you need to know in case you do: it's pay-to-play.

Here's a sample pitch, sent to me by a wisely wary author (emphasis added, and all errors courtesy of the original):
Dear [name redacted],

You were selected by our talent scout to be featured in #WORLDCLASS magazine as an author of [book title redacted].

We interview and feature top achievers in all areas of lives: entrepreneurs, world-class athletes, bestselling authors, top doctors, celebrity plastic surgeons and dentists, life coaches and icon experts in other areas.

Just a few names: Dr. Bill Dorman (ABS “Extreme Makeover”), Bill Walsh, David E. Stanley (Elvis Presley’s step brother), Dr. Raj Kanodia (World’s Leading Plastic Surgeon), Michael Irvin – NFL, Matthew Hatchette – NFL, Bryon Russel-- NBA, John Assaraf (Featured in movie Secret), Loren Ridinger ( just to name a few. You can view them here:

We are so passionate about inspiring and empowering people to get empowered and live the lives they deserve: from an outstanding energy and health, to passionate relationship and financial success.

Here are just some examples of the interview we have conducted:

We would love to interview you and feature on a COVER of #WORLDCLASS magazine. Our guest features had great success working with us. The exposure and credibility brought hundreds new leads as well as other media sources picked up and featured our guests in major media sources which led to thousands in sales on a front end and high ticket sales in a back end.

You can check our testimonials here:

We do charge to produce each interview and magazine feature to cover some of our crew and editor expenses. Investment is only $950 for the whole feature. You will get 4-page article with full color pictures of yourself and your featured services in addition to a COVER feature. This exposure will add tremendous value to your credibility and authority. (Just to compare our 2 page ad-spread runs between $5-$7 K)

Currently we have 2 more prospective experts interested in next month issue. Let me know if you want to take on this opportunity.

And if you have any questions, please ask away.

All best, and thank you for all that you do,

[name redacted]
Senior Talent Scout
E-mail: [email redacted]
Office: 888-580-5532
Note the semi-illiterate writing (whoever created the email is allergic to plurals and pronouns), the "What a deal!" price comparison, the "act now or someone else will get your spot" pressure tactic. And while for pay-to-play interviews, $950 doesn't seem all that bad--at least, not compared with some of the other interview schemes I've featured here (Close-up TV News, for instance, which charges between $3,000 and $5,000, or The Balancing Act, which charges $5,900)--there's an associated YouTube talk show. What do you bet that it's pitched to anyone who takes the email bait, at the cost of some serious extra zeroes?

Either way, interviewees will wind up more than $950 out of pocket. You might assume that those "full color pictures" will be courtesy of the magazine, but you would be wrong: you will have to provide the photos yourself.

#WORLDCLASS Magazine is owned by Katrina Starzhynskaya, a.k.a. "Katrina Starz," a self-described bestselling author and "serial entrepreneur" who "is known as an ambitious woman building businesses, creating high-end brands and getting celebrity endorsements all while saving the environment on 6-inch Louboutin stilettos." #WORLDCLASS is only the tip of the Starzhynskaya iceberg: she also offers health retreats, book launches, "publicity and branding", Amazon bestseller campaigns, and more.

If you're going to spend money on promotion, don't waste it on pay-to-play interviews (or reviews, for that matter). There are better ways to get a bang for your buck.

July 10, 2015

Alert: Don Semora, "Professional Designer and Author"

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Making money from authors can be good business, which probably explains why so many of those who exploit them return again and again to the trough. Case in point: Don Semora, whose brand-new website styles him a professional designer of book covers, games, websites, and more.  

Semora offers a smorgasbord of services for authors, from book layout to map design to a "self-marketing pack." His fees start at $60, with rates varying depending on the project. As you can see, the man's got mad skillz, at least in his own opinion:

Of course, mentioned nowhere on Semora's website is the fact that he's the former owner of Michigan-based pay-to-play publisher 2 Moon Press (now defunct), which was the focus of a police investigation based on dozens of author complaints of unpaid royalties, unfulfilled book orders, and breaches of contract (examples can be seen at the Better Business Bureau website, where 2 Moon Press has an F rating).

While Semora denies being the source of 2 Moon's problems (blaming them on Melinda Lundy, to whom he sold the publisher shortly before its 2013 demise), he has a prior history of fraudulent activity (including a 2004 conviction for Conspiracy to Commit Larceny by Conversion and Fraud), and has admitted to using 2 Moon Press funds for personal expenses, including vacations for himself and his wife.

Semora is being sued by 2 Moon author Bernard Zeitler for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, conversion, and fraudulent misrepresentation, among other charges. Semora's attorney recently petitioned to withdraw representation, citing as one of several causes Semora's failure to pay his bill.

This is at least the third business venture that Semora has established since his departure from 2 Moon Press. Others include an LLC called Fall River Publishing and Graphics, and another called Lightning Forge Games.

It's my understanding that an investigation of Semora, Lundy, and 2 Moon Press by the Calhoun County prosecutor remains open.

July 8, 2015

Amazon's "Personal Connection" Review Policies Are Nothing New

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

One of today's most popular pastimes, in the writing world at least, is demonizing Amazon (or sanctifying it, but that's not the subject of this post). Latest flashpoint: Amazon's review policies.

The flap seems to have begun with blogger Imy Santiago, who wrote about her attempt to post a review of a self-published book she'd just read. She received an automated response from Amazon indicating that she was "not eligible to review this product," and when she contacted Amazon to ask why, she was told:
We cannot post your Customer Review for (book title deleted) by (author name deleted) to the Amazon website because your account activity indicates that you know the author.
According to Santiago, she does not know the author; she's simply a reader and a fan. She contacted Amazon again, and was refused again; Amazon also refused to disclose "how we determine that accounts are related" because that information is "proprietary". Santiago was outraged.
I pay for my eBooks. I take the time to read and review books I love. The Big Brother mentality Amazon is employing is appalling, and crosses an ethical line of unfathomable proportions. They are not God, and are censoring my passion for the written word....This is wrong, and it has to stop. It is censorship at its finest.
Santiago's post was quickly picked up by other bloggers and news outlets, which echoed the Big Brother theme with ominous titles like Is Amazon Using False Information to Censor Book Reviews? and Amazon's Review Policy is Creepy and Bad for Authors and Amazon is Data Mining Reviewers' Personal Relationships.

Well, yeah. Amazon is data mining everything (including your reading activity, if you use a Kindle). This is not news. Nor is the fact that Amazon has long engaged in a policy of deleting or refusing reviews where it deems that the reviewer and the author are related in some way. A similar flap erupted in 2012, when Amazon began denying or getting rid of reviews "on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product." For Amazon, this included not just friends and fans and third-party merchants, but authors, who suddenly found themselves barred from posting reviews of fellow authors' books.

It's not as if there are legions of Amazon minions in cubicles poring over every customer review. Amazon uses automated systems--and while its secrecy about exactly how it makes determinations is frustrating, it's not surprising that it considers that information proprietary (plus, as TeleRead's Chris Meadows points out, providing individual explanations in response to every question would involve massive amounts of paperwork). Also, automated systems often get it wrong--as in the Great Erotica Panic of 2013, where books that did not violate Amazon's anti-smut guidelines were removed along with books that did. This is a problem of Amazon's enormous scale. But the ongoing culling of reviews exists in the larger context of Amazon's battle to quell rampant review sockpuppetry (against which it recently took action outside its own ecosystem, launching a lawsuit against three alleged fake review websites). It's hardly censorship, as in a practice of systematic, deliberate suppression.

Chris Meadows also wonders what Imy Santiago isn't revealing
I just want to re-emphasize we have no way of knowing how close Santiago and this other person she tried to review are. They could be almost complete strangers, or they could be on each others’ Christmas card lists. Santiago isn’t saying. She’s just objecting to the whole premise on principle. This seems a little suspicious to me, because as far as I’m concerned, the premise does make sense. If Amazon determines that you and the author of the book you’re reviewing do know each other, honestly, it should be keeping you from reviewing their book.
I tend to agree. Yet it's also true that Amazon's focus on review abuse is one-sided: while it makes active war on false positives, it largely ignores the problem of false negatives (for instance, one-star review campaigns). And its policies may sometimes hit some groups harder than others. In a long blog post, author Lori Otto makes a case for why, in a networked world where authors and readers are more connected than they've ever been, self-published authors are disproportionately affected by a ban on reviews from personal contacts:
As an Indie author, I can’t NOT become friends with many of these readers. Through these friendships, I reach more people… not because I ask them to share my books, but because they genuinely want to share them! It’s an organic process that isn’t motivated by greed or by threats or by anything negative.
A petition to "Change the 'You Know This Author' Policy" makes similar points. As of this writing, it has gathered over 9,000 supporters; I don't think any of them should be holding their breath, though.

July 3, 2015

Author Solutions Lawsuit Update: Class Certification Denied

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

This post has been updated.

In April 2013, the law firm of Giskan Solotaroff Anderston & Stewart filed a lawsuit against Author Solutions Inc. and its parent company, Penguin, alleging fraud, unjust enrichment, and violation of various statutes and consumer protection acts. Penguin was later dismissed from the suit.

In February 2015, having completed discovery, Giskan Solotaroff filed for class certification with a lengthy Memorandum of Law that unpacked a lot of information about ASI's business model and internal operations.

That certification has now been denied, in a decision handed down by Judge Denise Cote on July 1.
From what I can tell on an initial reading, the decision seems to boil down to the fact that in one of the subclasses they were seeking to certify, plaintiffs weren't able to meet certification requirements; and in the other, weren't able to demonstrate a clear pattern of deception on the part of AS that could apply to everyone in the proposed class.

Judge Cote's decision can be read in full here

I'm guessing that Giskan Solotaroff will appeal. In the meantime, their second lawsuit against AS is ongoing, and has been consolidated with another lawsuit brought by two individual plaintiffs, Everette et al. v. Author Solutions LLC.

UPDATE 10/27/15: The second lawsuit has been settled, according to Giskan Solotaroff:
Following the July 1, 2015 ruling by Judge Denise Cote denying plaintiffs’ motion for class certification in Simmons v. Author Solutions LLC, the parties have resolved both the New York and Indiana actions without any finding or admission of wrongdoing on the part of Author Solutions or its affiliates. By mutual agreement of the parties, the terms of the settlement are strictly confidential.
Giskan Solotaroff is no longer pursuing any claims against Author Solutions on a class-wide basis. However, they still wish to hear from authors with any of the AS imprints who've spent more than $10,000 in marketing services. A contact form is here.
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