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August 9, 2017

Lawsuits, Liens, and Lost URLs: The Latest on America Star Books / PublishAmerica

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware
This post was written in August 2017, and chronicles the abrupt disappearance of PublishAmerica/America Star Books. Given the amount of time that has elapsed since the company vanished, Writer Beware thinks it's safe to conclude that PA/ASB is permanently out of business.

Unfortunately, PA/ASB didn't terminate contracts or return authors' rights. PA/ASB books have vanished from all retailers' sites but Amazon, where they are still for sale, especially in Kindle editions.

Efforts to get law enforcement to look into the situation haven't been fruitful. Despite scores of complaints from PA/ASB authors, many of whom paid for services that were never rendered, the Maryland Attorney General's Office considers the author-publisher relationship a business-to-business matter, and therefore not something their Consumer Protection Division is willing to investigate. The AG's criminal division hasn't even bothered to respond.

Currently, this is what Writer Beware is suggesting (and keep in mind that we are not lawyers, so this isn't legal advice).

There's no question at this point that the company is dead. Writer Beware thinks it's safe to assume that all contracts are now void by default and you can proceed with re-publishing, if that's what you want to do. Alternatively, you can choose to wait out the term of your contract (PA/ASB contracts were time-limited; there can't be too many still in force at this point).

One caveat: Most PA/ASB print books now show as unavailable, but PA/ASB did not bother to remove the Kindle versions. If you want to re-publish, and there is a current Kindle edition of your book for sale on Amazon, you will need to file a copyright complaint to try and Amazon to take down the listing.

Amazon's copyright infringement reporting form is here: https://www.amazon.com/report/infringement. In the Additional Information box, state that ASB has gone out of business (you can mention that this has been confirmed by the Maryland Attorney General's office) and is no longer issuing royalty statements or making payments, and that continued sale of your book is therefore copyright infringement.

I've heard from some PA/ASB authors who've had success with this method. Keep in mind that retailers will not remove listings from third-party sellers--but these sellers rarely actually have copies of the books they list. Please leave a comment, or contact Writer Beware directly, to let us know how you fare.
This post has been updated.

It's been a while since I wrote about America Star Books, née PublishAmerica, one of the most prolific author mills in America (also the subject of scores of author complaints, and the recipient of an "F" rating from the Better Business Bureau). So what's been going on?

In May 2015, ASB/PA co-founder Larry Clopper filed suit against PA/ASB, co-founder Willem Meiners, and several others, alleging breach of contract, among other causes, and demanding dissolution of the company and appointment of a receiver. After over a year of legal maneuvering--which included the appointment of an appraiser, a counterclaim by Meiners/PA/ASB, and the issuance of subpoenas by Clopper to various PA/ASB banks and creditors--the parties agreed in July 2016 to stipulate to dismissal with prejudice.


I don't yet know what was in the settlement--I've put in a public records request, and will report back when I get the documents--but over the duration of the lawsuit and afterward, things have changed at PA/ASB.

Sometime after September 2015, ASB's About Us page--which previously had touted its founding "by book publishers with a long history of publishing experience"--began to reference the "new" America Star Books: "Run by its employees, from the bottom up....The company has a management, but there's not much top-down going on at America Star Books." (Here's what the page looks like today.)

At some point after September 2016, all mention of the translation program with which PA/ASB launched its 2014 name change was removed (here's what the website used to say about that, courtesy of the invaluable Internet Archive; here's what it says now). And in November 2016, PA/ASB put a hold on submissions "throughout [sic] the end of 2016."

That hold appears to have become permanent. Here's how the submission page looks today:


And here's what was briefly posted at a now non-working ASB web address:
America Star Books no longer accepts new authors. ASB Promotions will morph into Paperback Services in the near future....Paperback Services works side by side on location with Paperback Radio, America's only live 24/7 station about books and writers.

Paperback Radio and Paperback Services are both owned by PA/ASB co-founder Willem Meiners (Paperback Services has a web address that goes nowhere at the moment).
In the kind of feedback loop that's common with vanity publishers, items from Meiners' Paperback Radio (ads"experts lists"), along with a variety of "promotional" and other services from Meiners' Paperback Services, were offered for sale to PA/ASB authors in the Meiners-owned PA/ASB webstore.

That's not all. More signs of change/trouble at PA/ASB:

- According to Amazon, ASB was issuing books pretty regularly through the beginning of 2017, albeit at a reduced rate from previous years (around 10-15 per month). Since mid-May, it has issued just two titles.

- ASB currently has three open liens against it from the Maryland Dept. of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation, totaling $50,754.


- As of this writing, some ASB URLs are disabled: www.americastarbooks.net no longer works, nor does www.store.americastarbooks.pub, which used to host the PA/ASB bookstore and promotional "services" store (here are some examples of those services, courtesy of the Internet Archive). ASB's Facebook page also appears to be defunct (unless they've blocked me, which is possible). The PublishAmerica URL, which used to re-direct to America Star Books, now directs again to the old PA website (which hasn't been updated since 2013, but still has an open submissions portal).

- There's a bookstore link on the ASB website, but it doesn't work. PA/ASB books are still for sale at online retailers, but the PA/ASB bookstore doesn't appear to be online anywhere at any web address.

Is this really the end of America Star Books / PublishAmerica? Hard to say. There are rumors of bankruptcy, but I've searched on PACER and I've found no sign of any bankruptcy filings.

Questions remain. If ASB does disappear, what will happen to the books and authors currently under contract? If ASB Promotions, or Paperback Services, or whatever it winds up calling itself, survives as a separate entity, will spammer-in-chief Jackie Velnoskey continue her prolific program of email solicitations and comment spam?

Stay tuned.

UPDATE 8/14/17: ASB's one remaining web address now returns an account suspended message.
As far as I know, ASB/PA hasn't sent out any notifications or communications as to what's going on.

Authors, if you get any kind of notice or email from ASB, would you please contact me? Thanks.

UPDATE 8/19/17: I'm getting emails from authors wondering what to do. What happens with their books that are under contract? If ASB is really dead, can they take their books and publish elsewhere?

Right now, in my opinion, that wouldn't be wise.

All signs point to ASB being gone. Its website has vanished. Phones aren't being answered. Emails are bouncing. Putting those things together with the signs of trouble that I've discussed above, if I had to guess, I'd guess that ASB is history.

But...there's been no official announcement of a closure. I just checked again and there's still no sign of any bankruptcy filings, either under the business names or the owners' names. And ASB/PA books are still for sale new at online booksellers. I think there's at least the possibility that ASB might find a way to sell or otherwise transfer its huge catalog to some other entity (which many of the ASB/PA contracts I've seen allow it to do without asking authors' permission). Another possibility: ASB/PA books might somehow be folded in with Willem Meiners' Paperback enterprises.

Bottom line: we don't actually know what is going on, or what will happen. Until we do, it would be risky to take books that are under contract with either ASB or PA and try to re-publish them. The issue isn't just the possibility that ASB/PA or its successor might come after you, but that any new publisher or self-publishing service will require you to have full power to grant publishing rights. If you're currently under exclusive contract to a different publisher, and it's not clear that publisher is out of business, you don't have that power.

I'm also hearing from ASB authors who've paid for services they haven't received. My advice would be to immediately file a dispute with your credit card company or with PayPal (depending on how you paid). I've heard from a number of Tate Publishing authors who got money back this way. Feel free to use this post as justification.

Keep watching this blog for updates.

UPDATE 9/11/17: I noticed this a couple of weeks ago, but didn't post an update because I wasn't sure if it was a glitch. It's been long enough now that I'm guessing it's not.

Willem Meiners's Paperback Radio appears to have gone the way of  America Star Books. Its URL yields a "Site is currently offline" message. Its Twitter feed hasn't been updated since July 16. Its Facebook page is no longer available.

What's going on? No idea. There's still no sign of any bankruptcy filings, or any word from anyone at ASB. Publishers do a lot of bad things, but one of the worst is to do a bunk and leave authors in limbo.

If anyone has information or insight into the ASB/Meiners situation, will you please contact me? Your identity will be kept confidential. Thank you.

UPDATE 9/14/17: I've learned that this past June, some (though apparently not all) PA/ASB authors received an email from Willem Meiners announcing ASB's closure and transformation into Paperback Services. Here it is:
From: willem@americastarbooks.pub
To: [redacted]
Sent: Tuesday, June 6, 2017, 3:08:46 PM EDT
Subject: A letter from the CEO: name change coming

Dear [redacted],

At America Star Books we have reached a new milestone. As of later this week all of our book marketing and promotion efforts will be continued under a different name: Paperback Services. Our book promotion staff, Jackie Velnoskey, Kerrin Wuchter, Sarah Balukoff, and Sarah Freitas, will work using that new Paperback Services name. Nothing else changes there.

Not to worry — if your book is a hardcover, it will also be represented by Paperback Services. The name relates to that other entity that you have heard so often about: Paperback Radio.

I founded Paperback Services recently. I founded Paperback Radio a year ago. The station has been in the air nonstop since then. My motive was simple: there are many publishing companies today that will publish an author's book, either for free or for a fee. But there is no other radio station where everyone can hear about those books, let alone listen to what the author has to say about it. Paperback Radio is the nation's only 24/7 station about books and writers.

America Star Books no longer accepts new authors and publishes no more new titles. Nor do we attend any new trade shows under that name. Last week's Book Expo America was ASB's last event. Paperback Services, however, now takes over your book promotion with gusto, and will be at all the big events: Book Expo, Frankfurt Book Fair, Miami Book Fair, London Book Fair, Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the ALA library conventions, and more. Oftentimes Paperback Services will be there side by side with Paperback Radio.

Reporting live from the venues that until now only came to you through photos on Facebook is going to add a totally new dimension to the trade shows where your book is being promoted. Wherever you are in the world you'll be able to hear, live, what's going on in the towns where you spent your precious book promotion money. You will now be able to hear strangers talk about your book as they discover it.

Later this week you will start receiving emails from the book promotion staff that you know, Jackie, Kerrin, Sarah, and Sarah, that end with @paperbackservices.com. Same people, same array of marketing opportunities, new email addresses. There will also be a support@paperbackservices.com address, for all your questions.

Not only am I the founder of Paperback Radio and Paperback Services, but I also founded America Star Books and its predecessor, way back in the late 1990s. My mission then was to enable as many writers as possible to have their book published at no cost: I published almost 70,000 books, for free. I showed other publishers how to do it, and today many are doing a fine job. Now the time has come to make a difference in book promotion, so that your book can actually be discoveredamong all the others. With Paperback Services and Paperback Radio we are going to make this happen for you.

Thank you!

America Star Books,
Paperback Services,
Paperback Radio,

--Willem Meiners, founder and CEO
UPDATE 9/29/17: Thanks to an anonymous tipster, I've learned that Willem and Alice Meiners have put their house up for sale. According to Zillow, it was listed on September 5 (an interesting date, since Paperback Radio vanished at around the same time). A sale is already pending. (How do I know this is their house? Numerous online sources confirm their address.)

Think about how abruptly ASB, Paperback Radio, and Paperback Services vanished from the web. Then consider the sale of the Meiners's home, and the fact that all of this occurred within the same two- or three-week time period in mid-August to early September. It's curious, no? Especially in light of the optimistic tone of Meiners's June 6 announcement email. It's looking more and more to me as some sudden personal or financial or legal crisis is behind what's happened.

I've also heard from a couple of PA/ASB authors that the print versions of their books are suddenly showing as "currently unavailable" on Amazon. I did a quick check of recently-pubbed PA/ASB print books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and the majority of them are now listed as "currently unavailable" or "temporarily out of stock". It seems pretty clear that ASB is no longer interacting with its printer.

Kindle editions are not affected. Those are still on sale.

UPDATE 9/30/17: More bad news for PA/ASB.

Bookmasters' 2015 lawsuit against PA/ASB, which was settled in early 2016 when both parties stipulated to dismissal, has just been re-opened "for failure to comply with stipulation of settlement." A motion was filed by Bookmasters on August 16, and the case was re-opened on September 19. Screenshot below (you can see for yourself on the Maryland Judiciary Case Search website).


UPDATE 10/18/17: This is bizarre and I don't know what to make of it, but the americastarbooks.com URL has resurfaced...in Vietnamese. Some of the content of the old ASB site has been retained, specifically the About Us page, which is in English. Screenshot below.


None of the books shown on the site are or were published by ASB, as far as I can tell. Screenshot of the domain registration info:


What does it mean? I have no clue.

In other news, ASB now has a fourth lien against it, this one for over $28,000.


UPDATE 11/6/17: The following advice (originally posted in the comments) was received by an ASB author from a literary lawyer. I'm reproducing it here, along with my comments in bold.
I sincerely sympathize with you and all the others who have been victimized by America Star Books/PublishAmerica. I don’t handle disputes with PublishAmerica and its spin-offs --- litigation against it is too expensive for the typical person, and the results questionable. You should, of course, file a complaint with Maryland Consumer Protection Division (http://www.marylandattorneygeneral.gov/Pages/Complaints/general.aspx).

I can state the following, which you may find helpful:

1. As of today, there is no record of a bankruptcy filing by either ASB or PublishAmerica in Maryland. If a bankruptcy were filed, the bankruptcy trustee would have the rights to books under contract, they would not automatically be returned to the author. Several class actions suits have previously been attempted against PublishAmerica but were dismissed because the differing status of the plaintiffs did not qualify for a class. Individual lawsuits were hampered by an arbitration clause. Even if such suits were successful, the chance of recovering money from the owners is doubtful.

2. For most authors, getting their rights back is the paramount issue. One alternative is to file suit against in state court (District Court for Frederick Maryland, NOT federal District Court) alleging breach of contract (provided there is no arbitration clause in their contracts). If ASB is out of business, a default judgment will be granted if service or process can be obtained.

3. Another alternative is to send a certified letter to the last known address of ASB alleging breach of contract for failure to pay royalties and demanding reversion of rights. Typically the letter will not be signed for by ASB and returned; the author then can record the letter and explanation of the breach of contract with the Copyright Office (https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ12.pdf ) This would give the author a basis to argue he or she has the rights when dealing with a traditional publisher. Whether a traditional publisher is willing to take the risk is questionable, since there was no decision by an arbitrator or court that the publishing agreement was breached. (I frankly think it is highly unlikely that any professional publisher, large or small, would be willing to take this risk.)

If you wish to self-publish again, however, there are legitimate companies that will help. In that event, in the highly unlikely event that ASB alleged copyright infringement against the author because it alleged it still owned the rights, the author would defend on the issue of breach of contract. (Be aware, though, that most self-publishing platforms' and author services companies' Terms of Use require you to warrant that you have the unencumbered right to enter into a publishing agreement--which, without an official reversion of rights from ASB, it is not clear you do. Punishment for a breached warranty could be removal of your account. See, for example, Section 7 of CreateSpace's Member Agreement: https://eu.createspace.com/pub/signup/view.memberagreement.do )

4. The problem of ASB still selling the author’s books on Amazon and other sites is a separate issue. Once the author takes the position that ASB has breached its agreement and thus it no longer has the rights, you can send DMCA takedown notices to the web sites selling the ASB versions (see http://publishlawyer.com/protecting-your-copyright/ ). Depending on whether ASB files a counter-notice, this may work. (ASB won't file a counter-notice, but whether this methd will work will depend on whether the website accepts your position as valid.)
UPDATE 3/13/18: In another sign that ASB won't rise from the dead, its americastarbooks.net URL has been re-registered to a suspicious-looking outfit called America's Tech. The same individual or group has also registered americastarbooks.webcam.

UPDATE 1/3/19:  I would have bet good money that Willem Meiners fled the country after he shuttered America Star Books--but it appears he is still in the USA, and living in Bangor, Maine. See the highlighted text in this screenshot of a listing for his recently published book, De Dutch Touch (the weird English is thanks to Google Translate).


Believe it or not, the publisher is a reputable Dutch nonfiction house. Here is Meiners's bio on the publisher's website (lest you doubt it's him, there's a photo). Not surprisingly, there's no mention of his long history of publishing scams. He's also on Twitter.

204 comments :

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Victoria Strauss said...

What you're seeing is the old PA website, which was exposed when Meiners et al. took the America Star Books website offline in 2017. They never removed the old website when they changed their name to ASB--just set the PA URL to forward to the new ASB site. Once the ASB site vanished, the old PA site reappeared, and they didn't bother to remove it then either.

It's not an active site--if you explore, you'll see that it's way out of date and some of the links don't work (for instance, there's no author bookstore). The domain registration expires in November of this year, so it will be interesting to see if this relic website vanishes at that point.

Anonymous said...

The contract for my novel would have run out waaaay back in 2016. (I believe all contracts were standard, for seven years). A second (if contracts roll over by default) would run out in 2023. Is anything STILL binding (rollover contract)? Do I now own my publishing rights?

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous 6/30,

I'm not a lawyer, so this is not a legal opinion. But from a practical standpoint, PA is dead, so I think it's safe to assume that any contracts are void by default, if they haven't already expired. Just make sure Amazon isn't offering a Kindle version of your book--for whatever reason, PA didn't cancel its Kindle account when it did a bunk, and some PA books are still for sale in that format. If your book is one of them, you will need to deal with Amazon to get it removed.

Jeff said...

The website may still be "active", but if you poke around on the site, you'll see that many of the links are dead.

I was one of the lucky few who got my rights returned to me (a number of years ago). Personally, I think this couldn't happen to a nicer company. :)

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