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April 29, 2016

Spam, Spam, Spam Spam: Inkitt and the Grand Novel Contest

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Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

If you're a writer and have even a smidgeon of online presence, you've probably been emailed or messaged or tweeted by Inkitt, a Berlin-based company that allows writers to post stories and get reader reviews and votes. A prolific spammer, Inkitt also conducts a lot of contests with titles like Vendetta Thriller/Adventure Contest, along with fanfic contests like Star Wars Sci-Fi Writing Contest (does George Lucas know?). Winning gets you badges on your profile page, and, occasionally, publication.

Tales of Inkitt spam can be seen here or here or here (I've gotten my share, as well). Vote-shilling by contest participants won a temporary ban on Inkitt posts on Reddit a few months ago.

Most recently, Inkitt launched its Grand Novel Contest (for which, no surprise, it is energetically spamming on Twitter):
Win a publishing offer from Inkitt! No submission fees!

Submit your finished novel, 40,000 words or more – no fan fiction, no other limitations on genre! It’s time for you to bring your manuscript into the light and show it off to the world. We are looking for tomorrow's best-sellers!
So why would you want to win a book publishing offer from Inkitt? really kind of wouldn't.

Inkitt was co-founded by programmer Ali Albazaz, who was inspired by the success of E.L. James's 50 Shades of Grey, in particular the idea of crowdsourced editing: "Don’t publish in two years when you’re finished. Publish as you go, get feedback from other writers and improve." Albazaz claims he has developed an "intelligent" algorithm that uniquely distinguishes Inkitt from similar sites like Wattpad:
We’ve developed an artificially intelligent algorithm that analyses the behaviour of readers on our website. We measure their engagement and build statistical models to forecast the positioning of a book in the real world market even before it is published.​ Once we have found a potential blockbuster book, the next step is working with publishers to get these stories to print.
(He also claims that "Moby Dick was refused [by publishers] because it had ‘dick’ in the title," so take that as you will.)

Inkitt details its publishing philosophy here (in a nutshell, goodbye elitist editors and snooty publishers, hello democratization via the "objective" opinion of readers and Inkitt's magic algorithm). If that floats your boat, you may also be impressed by Inkitt's four-stage publishing process:
Step 1: We design your cover and edit your manuscript.

Step 2: We pitch your book to A-list publishers (e.g. Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, MacMillan and HarperCollins), and negotiate the best terms for licensing.

Step 3: If the publishers don’t pick your book, we publish you and run a marketing campaign to sell as many books as possible. If we can’t sell more than 1000 books within 12 months then you can get all your rights back.

Step 4: But if your book sells well, we go back to the A-list publishers, exhibit your success and ask them if they want to print your book.
If you know anything about publishing, you know how well this is likely to work. Melville House sales manager Chad Felix, who has also blogged about Inkitt, has it right:
We’ve seen it again and again: non-expert or reformed expert approaches industry with ideas about how to make money (Inkitt creators Ali Albazaz and Linda Gavin have backgrounds in sales and corporate design, respectively), non-expert builds algorithm, non-expert tries to sell newfangled, guaranteed-to-work thing back to the industry of bad experts.
I could find nothing on Inkitt's website to indicate what the terms of its publishing contract might be, although the Grand Novel Contest guidelines indicate that if Inkitt publishes, "the author will receive 50% of Inkitt's net earnings. Apparently Inkitt has already signed and published the first book in the series Sky Riders by Erin Swan, though there's no sign of the book anywhere except on Inkitt.

I think this guy's got the right reaction.

UPDATE: According to this press release from Inkitt, Tor has signed Erin Swan's novel:
Bright Star, the young adult novel by up-and-coming author Erin Swan, was discovered using predictive data with Inkitt’s artificially intelligent algorithms unearthing the highly-addictive book based on an analysis of reading patterns on the platform. The novel is expected to hit bookshelves in summer 2017.
Publishers Marketplace confirms:

Per the Grand Novel Contest guidelines, Inkitt appears to be claiming an agent's 15% commission. On Inkitt, Swan's work appears to be a series, and Bright Star is actually Book 2, so it's not clear to me whether Tor has bought the series or just the one book.

I remain skeptical of Inkitt's "data driven" approach...but congratulations to the author!


I also have to say that this, recycled by Inkitt on its website and in nearly all its PR materials, is one of the most annoying memes ever--
We have built a platform that is cutting out the middleman in the publishing industry: the acquisitions editor. There is a long list of books whose authors faced rejection at the hands of publishers. That list includes everything from Moby Dick to Harry Potter. Why? Because individual editors and literary agents make decisions that are subjective – often based on their gut instinct – and this means they sometimes get it wrong.
--because it's totally self-refuting: all these books did eventually get published.


UPDATE 3/3/17: In the ten or so months since I wrote this post, Inkitt doesn't seem to have placed any more manuscripts with other publishers, but it is still sending unsolicited email.

It has also ramped up its own publishing efforts. As of mid-February 2017 it had issued twelve books, according to Amazon. Its publishing contract is now posted online, helpfully annotated with plain-language explanations in little speech bubbles. Authors who are considering a publishing offer from Inkitt might, however, want to consider a few things the speech bubbles don't mention.

- The contract requires authors not just to waive their moral rights, but to assign them to Inkitt, and to the extent that they can't be assigned (as, in some countries, they can't be) to agree not to assert them "at any time". (Clause II.1.) Moral rights, which include the right of attribution and the right to the integrity of the work, are only partially recognized in the USA but are important in other countries. I'm not a lawyer, but as I understand it, this wording would prevent authors from asserting their moral rights in countries where moral rights are recognized--which could be an issue with subsidiary rights sales.

- The contract requires authors to "execute any and all documents and papers reasonably requested by Publisher to evidence the transfer of the Work´s rights to Publisher, including, but not limited to, documents and papers relating to the assignment of copyrights." (My bolding. Also Clause II.1.) Yikes. To be clear, Inkitt does not demand a copyright assignment. But if it doesn't, why is this language included? Might it also suggest that Inkitt is willing to negotiate a subsidiary rights deal that does demand copyright assignment? (The contract claims just about every subright in existence.)

- The contract gives Inkitt first refusal on works in the same series, but binds the author to "the same conditions as the ones established herein for the first work." (Clause II.3.) This is great for Inkitt if a series takes off. It's not so great for the author, who under other circumstances could use a previous book's success to negotiate a better deal.

- Per Clause XV, the term of the contract is 15 years (a bit confusing, since Clause II takes rights for the life of copyright--but let's assume the 15-year provision prevails.) That is super-long for a digitally-based small press. Authors do have the right to terminate if Inkitt fails to sell 1,000 books within the first year of publication--but if sales exceed 1,000, the author is on the hook for the full 15. Again, this is great for Inkitt, because it gets to hold rights for a really long time, even if the book in question is selling in tiny quantities (low-selling books can be profitable if the publisher has a large enough catalog); but possibly not terrific for authors, who, once sales decline, are usually better off reverting their rights and exploiting them on their own.

- Royalties for Inkitt-published books are 25% of net (a drop from the 50% initially promised). (Clause X.) Inkitt also promises to "allocate a minimum of six thousand (6,000) dollars marketing budget into the Work for an initial marketing test". (Clause VIII.2.) Authors should be aware that editing and design costs are considered part of this budget, per a post from Inkitt founder Ali Albazaz in this discussion thread.

There are other issues, including an overly broad non-competition clause, but these are the highlights.


UPDATE 3/24/17: I spoke today with Ali Albazaz, Inkitt's owner. We talked about Inkitt's business model, and agreed to continue to disagree on whether technology and Big Data can make the process of discovering new authors more efficient and less subjective, or whether, by publishing novels selected by algorithm, Inkitt is really doing anything to revolutionize the basic process of selecting and publishing books.

I asked whether, given the company's active publishing program, they plan to continue trying to make deals with traditional publishers. Ali indicated that they are now focusing more on publishing (though the website still presents Inkitt as an "agent"). He also told me that he is seeking wider (offline) distribution for Inkitt-published books, including bookstore shelf presence. My impression is that he is genuinely committed to supporting the books and authors he publishes.

We discussed some of the issues I raised in this post. Ali will be consulting with Inkitt's lawyer about the contract clauses I flagged above (I will update this post if anything changes). While I appreciate Ali's willingness to look into my concerns, I'm worried at what seemed to me like an incomplete understanding of his own contract language. I also wonder what response he'll get from his lawyer. For instance, Ali said that he was told by the lawyer that it was standard practice among Big 5 publishers to require authors to waive or agree not to assert their moral rights. It is not.

Ali also expressed concern about my (and others') criticism of Inkitt's prolific program of unsolicited emails and tweets; he said he feels this was "a mistake" and that the company plans to move away from this practice.


UPDATE 4/25/17: In private conversation with me, Inkitt founder Ali Albazaz claimed that Inkitt is moving away from spamming as a promotional tactic. That may be true (I don't know)--but even if it is, Inkitt is still using questionable promotional methods. Namely, paying for referrals.

Inkitt affiliates advertise Inkitt's contests on their websites or blogs, or by direct mail to their subscriber lists, using the possibility of publication as an incentive. If someone submits their book using the affiliate link, the referrer gets a small fee (between $5 and $15).

I first heard of this program from two people who were approached to become affiliates, and I've confirmed its existence with Ali Albazaz, who says that Inkitt has signed up more than 500 "partners." Affiliate links currently lead to this page, which invites writers to submit their books and "join the circle of Inkitt's bestselling authors." On a quick spot check, most affiliates disclose their affiliate status, but not all: this one doesn't, nor does this one, which embeds repeated Inkitt affiliate links in a long article about book promotion sites. Of those that do identify themselves as affiliates, not all reveal the fee.

I can only guess that the Inkitt folks are not aware of the seamy history of paid referrals in publishing.


UPDATE 5/23/17: In our March conversation, Ali Albazaz informed me that he'd be consulting Inkitt's lawyer about the contract issues I've highlighted above. He emailed me on April 18 to tell me that the contract had been updated to address the issues, and to promise that I'd receive the final version "in the next few days."

I've heard nothing since. And on a check today of Inkitt's contract page, the contract language I was concerned about, along with the incomplete and/or misleading "plain language" explanations, had not changed.



UPDATE 1/3/18: Inkitt updated its contract in July 2017. It never did share the contract with me--I heard about the update incidentally on Twitter.

There are improvements. The objectionable moral rights waiver is gone, as is the language about assignment of copyright. The non-competition period has been restricted to one year post-publication. And though it now appears to be a life-of-copyright contract (rather than the 15 year term of the previous version), authors can terminate if sales are less than 1,000 in the first year (though only if there have been no licensing sales), or less than 500 in any 12-month period following the first year.

Also, the promise of a $6,000 marketing budget has been removed.

However, there are still some things that authors need to be aware of.

- This is an all-rights contract; Inkitt claims "the sole and exclusive" right to exploit or license just about every right and subsidiary right in existence. Authors can reclaim film, TV, dramatic, and game rights if those haven't been used or licensed within 18 months of publication--but that's all. Where a publisher makes an exclusive claim on so many subsidiary rights, authors are well advised to investigate whether the publisher is actually capable of exploiting or licensing them. At this time, I'm not seeing any indication of that with Inkitt (if I'm wrong, I welcome correction).

- Although Clause 7 (Publication) provides an 18-month publication window, Inkitt's annotation on the clause indicates that, in fact, "Our publishing process generally takes between 8-12 weeks from signing date to publication date." If true, this is an awfully short time frame for a thorough editing, copy editing, and proofing process, let alone the creation of an individualized marketing plan.

- Language in the Option clause suggests that Inkitt is claiming an option and right of first refusal not just on an author's next Serial Work (defined as prequels, sequels, and books that "use or adapt" the principal characters or that are set in the same world) but on subsequent ones as well. Briefly, the author must offer Inkitt their next Serial Work; if the author and Inkitt can't come to terms, the author can shop the work to other publishers, but if another publisher makes an offer, the author must give Inkitt the opportunity to match it. If Inkitt chooses not to do so, "the Author shall be free to contract with the other party for the Author’s next Serial Work without further obligation to the Publisher respecting the Author’s next Serial Work (but preserving the Publisher’s Option and Right of First Refusal for any subsequent Serial Works)." (my bolding) I'm not sure that a perpetual option on Serial Works is really Inkitt's intent--but this wording certainly can be interpreted that way, so authors might want to get clarity on this issue and amend the contract accordingly.

- Royalties for paperback editions are 51% of net revenue--but this is actually net profit, since "the Publisher's direct unit production costs" are deducted. From the language, it's not clear whether the costs are deducted from net revenue before royalties are calculated, or whether the costs are deducted from the author's royalty share.

- For Performance Marketing Sales (defined as sales "through any method of performance marketing...including...Facebook Ads, Outbrain Ads, Bookbub Ads, Twitter Ads, Amazon Ads, etc."), royalties are 51% of net revenue--but again this is actually net profit, with "marketing costs associated with such sales" deducted from net revenue before royalties are calculated.

- No royalty rate is stated for "all other editions" (Clause 10.II.i: "All other editions, versions and formats of the Work not expressly described above"). I'm sure this is just an error, but it should be corrected.

- The contract attempts to impose a gag order on "the financial and economic terms" of the agreement.

UPDATE 10/1/19: Anyone who is considering publishing with Inkitt should read this interview with one of Inkitt's first published authors, Lauren Garcia. It describes why she decided to leave Inkitt after three years and three books--in part because of Inkitt's plan to switch most of its publishing focus to its "immersive fiction app", Galatea.

There are many fascinating nuggets buried in the interview, such Inkitt's declining responsiveness over the course of Lauren's publishing experience, and Inkitt's requirement that books "earn out" their marketing costs before any royalties were paid (not the same thing as, and even more onerous than, the "net profit" provision that I highlighted above).

April 22, 2016

Small Press Storm Warnings: Pegasus Books, Realmwalker Publishing Group, Spectral Press, Tickety Boo Press

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A roundup of publishers about which I've recently received serious complaints (all of them documented).

Pegasus Books

Pegasus Books of California (not to be confused with indie publisher Pegasus Books of New York or UK-based vanity publisher Pegasus Elliott Mackenzie or any of the several bookstores by that name) is the subject of serious complaints by authors.

Complaints include referrals to a paid editing service (Rumpelstiltskin Editorial Services) that's presented as an outside contractor, but is actually owned by Pegasus's publisher, Marcus McGee; poor quality editing/copy editing (one writer reports that editing consisted mostly of "the addition of hundreds of italics, em dashes and commas and correcting a few instances of passive voice"); various fees including fees for cover art (even though Pegasus's website presents the company as "a medium-sized traditional publisher" that does not charge fees to authors); pressure to buy finished books (authors are told that marketing is dependent on how many copies they purchase); missed pub dates; broken marketing promises; and unpaid royalties. Pegasus also offers a contract that's substantially based on the old PublishAmerica contract.

Here's one former Pegasus author's account of his terrible experience. Also, for your amusement, check out Pegasus's convoluted screed on why the bad old days "when savvy literary agents 'gifted' respected book reviewers with box seats at the Met and exotic family vacations in exchange for consideration and favorable quotes in newspapers and magazines" are gone, and it's fine for publishers to push authors into paying for editing.

Several Pegasus authors are banding together to try and bring suit against the company for fraud, despite the presence in the Pegasus contract of an arbitration clause. In the meantime...beware.

Realmwalker Publishing Group

In mid-2015, shortly after Realmwalker Publishing Group began publishing books by authors other than its owner, James Drake (who writes under the pen name Lee Aarons), I had a chance to see its contract. I don't often have the opportunity to say that a publishing contract is too author-friendly, but this one was, to the disadvantage of the publisher, with a huge royalty percentage (60% of net), a clause that allowed the author to terminate at will any time after publication, and a four-figure advance--way above average for most small presses.

Amazingly, when I saw another Realmwalker contract a few months later, the company had made things even worse for itself, increasing the author's royalty share to a truly insane 85-95% of net. Even many self-pub platforms don't provide that kind of payment. For added spice, it had created copyright confusion as well--a grant of rights that "exclusively grants, assigns, and otherwise transfers to the Publisher and its licensees, successors, and assigns, all right, title, and interest in and to the Work"--in other words, a copyright transfer--yet, later in the contract, a clause ensuring that copyright notices "in the name of the author" would be included in published books.

After noting all these problems to the author who'd contacted me with questions about the newer contract, I wrote:
All in all, this contract is a recipe for disaster, and I will be surprised if Realmwalker is still in business a year from now. Usually I hear about publishers that greedily try to cheat authors of rights and income, but in this case the publisher is cheating itself. In the long run, though, that works out just as badly for authors.
I mention all of this just to highlight the bizarre mixture of cluelessness and (I believe) genuine good intentions behind Realmwalker--a mixture I see all too often in the small press world, and that all too often leads to doom. I don't take any pleasure in being right.

In December 2015, James Drake posted a rambling YouTube apologia (to which I'm not linking, to spare Drake embarrassment beyond this blog post) for the ongoing logistical and financial problems at the company. When, on March 14, Drake announced the formation and development of six new imprints, authors might have hoped things were getting better--but this apparent sign of health was misleading, because by late March Drake had begun to discuss dissolving the company.

Realmwalker issued its last book on April 5. On his blog, author James Minty discusses the confusion, snafus, and excuses that accompanied release. Other Realmwalker authors report similar experiences, as well as royalty money owing. At least Drake seems to be doing the proper thing and reverting rights--cold comfort to authors who believed their books would be carefully published. Likely authors who contributed stories to Realmwalker's anthology, The Legacy, are similarly high and dry.

As of this writing, there's nothing on Realmwalker's website to indicate that it's out of business, and the webpage for the anthology is still calling for submissions. Writers be warned.

Spectral Press / Tickety Boo Press

I haven't received direct complaints about UK-based Spectral Press, but several Writer Beware readers alerted me to this long, documented blog post from author Simon Bestwick, which describes substantial, long-standing problems with the company. (Several other authors have also blogged about the difficulties at Spectral.)

Apparently, "it has emerged that Spectral is in debt to the tune of between £8,000 - £10,000 GBP. A good part of this consists of monies owed to their authors; in addition to this, many customers had paid for orders that had still not been received." The personal problems of Spectral's owner appear to have substantially contributed to Spectral's decline.

As an attempted fix to the troubles, it was announced in early January that Spectral would be taken over by a friend of Spectral's owner, Gary Compton of Tickety Boo Press. Just one problem:
Meanwhile, this article about Gary Compton had been brought to light [revealing that Compton, whose day job is as a designer/contractor, was the subject of a number of complaints of non-performance]. As was this link, which reveals he actually went bankrupt in 2015. And this link, according to which [Tickety Boo Press] has neither assets nor turnover.
The Tickety Boo info has been confirmed to me in private email; I've also seen a Tickety Boo contract, which includes some iffy provisions. Apparently, Compton has responded to authors' questions and concerns with anger, insults, and social media blocks.

What a sad fate for a once-respected publisher.
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