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.

August 31, 2018

De Montfort Literature: Career Jumpstart or Literary Sweatshop?


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I was planning on writing about De Montfort Literature myself, but Alliance of Independent Authors watchdog John Doppler beat me to it, with this excellent warning post.

Started by hedge fund manager Jonathan de Montfort  (I have some questions here; see the update below), DML promises to help writers kick-start their careers by paying them an annual salary of £24,000, plus royalties, to write novels that will be published under the DML brand. DML also promises to provide a pension and "all computer equipment and software necessary." As with Inkitt, there's an algorithm. It also looks like the company wants to create its own proprietary e-reader software (a risky move, unless you're Amazon).

What must writers agree to in return? Not much. Just surrender copyright (per its FAQ, DML claims copyright not just to novels, but to ideas--despite the fact that copyright does not cover ideas)*, write only for DML, accept net profit royalties (always a huge red flag), and give up their day jobs (yes, you read that right). Early versions of the DML FAQ described a punitive non-compete provision barring authors from writing for other publishers for two years after leaving DML; that appears to have been re-thought, however, and is no longer mentioned on the website.

*(John Doppler has updated his post with new information provided by Mr. de Montfort, including the claim that "Technically, the author retains ownership of the copyright, but licenses the content and all rights, subrights, and options exclusively to DML..." However, as of this writing, DML's FAQ clearly states that DML takes ownership of copyright.)


To even have a chance of joining this venture, writers must submit to a mysterious application process involving multiple NDAs and a "psychometric test." (Interested writers are well-advised to carefully read DML's Privacy Policy, which among other things discusses what the company can do with the psychometric data.) Per DML's Twitter feed, response has been overwhelming. This seems to have resulted in multiple delays (the delays were confirmed to me by a participating writer).

I don't doubt that there are good intentions here. And any beginning writer (and even many established ones) can appreciate the appeal of a steady salary to practice their craft. But there are also obvious problems, as noted above--and even beyond those, as John Doppler points out, hedge fund experience does not equal publishing experience:
Jonathan De Montfort, the individual behind this venture, is a successful hedge fund manager who credits his firm’s success to “a mathematical system based partly on the Fibonacci sequence”. He claims this system has successfully predicted financial markets, the 2008 crash, and Brexit, and other events, and now believes it can be applied to literature. “I have taken what I know about hedge fund management and applied it to literature,” reads a quote on the company’s website.

However, De Montfort’s experience with publishing appears to be extremely limited; his first novel, Turner is scheduled to be published on August 31st of this year.

In a June 1 interview with The Guardian, De Montfort’s view of publishing becomes more apparent. He says, “The traditional publishing models for fiction writers are littered with obstacles. Securing a literary agent is a lottery, and self-publishing is costly and time-consuming.” DML’s website positions their approach as a “new, alternative route to the traditional agents and publishers” which will “make being a novelist a valid career choice…”

The thousands of career authors who are earning a living wage from their “invalid career choice” may take exception to those comments.
Lack of experience and untested concept aside, could De Montfort Literature succeed? Could it maintain good and ethical working relationships, establish excellent distribution and marketing networks, and parlay a stable of books and authors into a profitable business for all concerned? It's certainly possible. But writers need to also consider less rosy scenarios, one of which Doppler lays out as follows:
1. The author passes DML’s screening and is accepted into the program.
2. The author quits their day job to pursue their passion, writing.
3. The author collects a steady paycheck.
4. DML’s algorithms decide that steamy vampire detective thrillers have high profit potential.
5. DML assigns the author a steamy vampire detective thriller project very loosely based on the author’s original historical romance idea.
6. DML requires six steamy vampire detective novels per year. Writer’s block is not allowed.
7. The author has an idea for a fascinating book on a topic that has captivated their interest. DML declines to pursue the project. The idea now belongs to DML, and the writer is prohibited from authoring similar works.
8. Although the author is entitled to 50% of the steamy vampire net profits, DML claims that marketing, production, and salaries have resulted in a net loss.
9. The author quits in disgust… or DML informs the author that they are no longer needed and dismisses them.
10. DML retains the rights to use the author’s name, branding, ideas, and books.
11. The author is prohibited from writing or publishing anything for two years.
12. Meanwhile, DML markets a series of horrendous steamy vampire detective thriller under the author’s name, ghostwritten by an overworked amateur.
13. When the author asks DML to stop, the company invites the author to buy back the rights to their intellectual property for $20,000.00.
Doppler notes that further information from Mr. de Montfort qualifies some of these projections: for instance, the algorithms will be used only for writer selection, not to choose book genres. Still, I can't resist proposing my own alternate scenario: DML disappears without ever putting out a single book other than de Montfort's own.

Turner is DML's first (and so far only) publication. With a release date of August 31, it will provide an interesting test case for DML's marketing, distribution, and sales strategies (that it is initially being released only in print, and currently appears to be available only on UK retailers' websites, are not encouraging signs). If you're thinking of applying to become a DML writer, I'd suggest you consider holding off until Turner has been out for a while, and you can assess its performance.

UPDATE 9/7/18: I've been doing a bit of research into Mr. de Montfort and his investment firm, De Montfort Capital (DMC). What I'm finding is...odd.

The firm's current website states that the company was founded in 2013. And indeed, DMC's web domain was registered in that year. However, from 2013 through at least early 2018, DMC's website was basically a placeholder, complete with non-working links and fake Latin text fillers (not to mention typos). Here it is in January 2018, courtesy of the Wayback Machine:


Three team members are listed: Jonathan de Montfort, James Turner, and Richard de Montfort. It's worth noting that Jonathan de Montfort's middle name is Richard.

DMC's business address at that time--145-157 St John Street, London--was a virtual office address sold by Companies Made Simple. Companies Made Simple also sells company formation services.


DMC's website was re-vamped sometime after March 2018 to provide a more stylish and fully functional (if curiously bare) web presence. Its business address also changed, to 20-22 Wenlock Road, London--really just a cosmetic shift, because that's the new address of the very same Companies Made Simple, which moved to the new digs in early 2015.

Co-working space is available for rent at the Wenlock Street address, so DMC's address may not be completely virtual. Even if it were, there's nothing wrong with that. But it's not what you'd expect of a successful hedge fund company--nor is the long period of time following the company's founding date during which DMC's web presence was a mere placeholder.

DMC's filing history, available at Companies House, makes for interesting reading. It's classed as a micro-company (as of 30 April 2017, its total net assets were under £10,000). Through 29 April 2018, its SIC code (Standard Industrial Classification, used in the UK for classifying industries) was 82990, or "other business support service activities n.e.c.", which includes a range of activities, such as meter reading and repossession services, that aren't typical of hedge funds.

Then, on 15 May 2018, just a few days after the launch of De Montfort Literature, DMC added three new SIC codes: 47610 (retail sale of books in specialised stores); 58110 (book publishing); and 64303 (activities of venture and development capital companies).

That an investment firm founded in 2013 should only classify itself as such in May 2018 seems (to put it mildly) rather peculiar. There's also very little on DMC's website, or findable online, to support its claim of success--no investment history, no fund descriptions, no staff names (at least on the website's current version) or bios other than Mr. de Montfort's own. The only investment that's actually named (besides DML) is Minds.com, a cryptocurrency-focused social media network that describes itself as "an open-source and decentralized platform for internet freedom" and has attracted some buzz as a potential Facebook competitor.

Around the same time he incorporated De Montfort Literature, de Montfort established two additional companies: De Montfort Media and De Montfort Technology.

There may be important information that I've missed, or that isn't publicly available, that casts a different light on all of the above. As of now, though, something about these De Montfort ventures isn't adding up for me. If nothing else, it's another reason to be cautious about De Montfort Literature.

UPDATE 10/4/18: On its Facebook page, DML has announced that it has inked distribution deals with Macmillan Distribution in the UK and Consortium in the USA. I was able to confirm that DML is listed on Macmillan's website, but as of this writing there's no mention of it at Consortium.

That would seem to be good news for a fledgling publisher. However, DML's Facebook page is gathering numerous questions from authors who are wondering why their applications have received no response, and at least one author who was persistent in their questions has been blocked from the page. From August 30:


From October 2:


In another possible sign of trouble, the pub date for Turner has been pushed back to October 22.

August 21, 2018

Contest Caution: The Short Story Project's My Best Story Competition


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

This post has been updated.

There's another big-money writing competition in town: The Short Story Project's My Best Story contest.

The Short Story Project (TSSP) offers customized lists of curated short stories for download, in text and audio form. Right now, the stories on the site are a mix of in-copyright and public domain works; TSSP also appears to be planning to allow writers to submit stories directly, with perks such as a "professional review" tied to the number of reads. Stories can be accessed for free; there are also subscription plans that ensure an ad-free reading experience.

So what about the competition? 20 writers can win prizes ranging from $125 (for 10th place) to $5,000 (for the grand prize winner). Included is SmartEdit software and publication on TSSP for the top five writers. Competition judges are not only named, but have genuine credentials (this is one of the more important ways of distinguishing a fake contest from a real one). Word limit is 2,500, entry fee is a not-unreasonable $17, and the deadline for submissions is September 30.

So far, so good. As always, though, the devil is in the fine print--in particular, the fine print regarding intellectual property rights. Though TSSP makes it all sound very simple--
--its Terms and Conditions tell a different story [UPDATE: the T&C have been amended. See below].


Merely by entering the competition, writers are granting sweeping publication and commercialization rights not just to TSSP, but to anyone associated with it who obtains a copy of the writer's story "in connection with Sponsor's business."

It's not uncommon for competitions to require writers to grant various rights upon submitting, as a kind of shortcut to ensure that the sponsor will have those rights already in hand when winners are chosen. But such a grant should be temporary, and should always be balanced by language ensuring that rights are released back to entrants if they don't win.

TSSP's T&C do not include any such language. Not only that, they extend the grant of rights to unidentified third parties working "on Sponsor's behalf." In other words, whether or not you win, TSSP and unknown people associated with it retain publishing rights to your entry in perpetuity, and can do pretty much anything they want with it without payment or even notice to you. Yes, the grant is non-exclusive, which means that you can publish elsewhere--but since entering this competition is in effect a grant of first rights to TSSP, you will only ever be able to sell your story as a reprint.

In addition, entrants must agree to a sweeping indemnification clause whose language suggests they will have no recourse for improper use of their stories (such as intellectual property theft):


Resolving claims might be difficult in any case--at least for US- and UK-based writers--given that the contest is governed by the laws of Israel, and any disputes must be resolved there. (As is increasingly common these days in T&Cs, the guidelines also bar class action lawsuits.)

Less than two weeks ago, I wrote about a different competition whose T&Cs also failed to release entrants from a grant of rights required on entry. This is a fairly common issue with competitions that include a grant of rights in their guidelines, and I think in many cases it's just carelessness (or, sometimes, ignorance) on the part of the sponsor--a failure to consider consequences, rather than because the competition is greedy or shady. But--assuming the competition actually isn't greedy or shady--there really is no excuse for it, given how easy it is to fix, simply by adding language terminating the grants of non-winners immediately upon announcement of competition results.

Yet another demonstration of why writers must pay careful attention to the fine print of competition guidelines, and make sure they understand what they may be giving up by entering.

UPDATE: TSSP is soliciting entries via Messenger, offering 50% discounts on the entry fee.



UPDATE 8/27/18: Last week, TSSP's founder, Iftach Alony, offered to answer some questions from Writer Beware. His responses are below.

Iftach says that he will amend the License to Entry clause of TSSP's contest guidelines to clarify that the grant of rights is digital only, and will add language releasing the rights of non-winners 6 months after the competition ends. He has assured me that both these changes will be retroactive for writers who've already entered the competition.

The 6-month lag time in releasing rights, presumably, will enable TSSP to publish deserving stories other than those chosen as winners. However, TSSP's grant of rights is explicitly "free of charge"--so if you submit to this competition, be aware that you are consenting to possibly being published without payment.

In responding to my question about payment, Iftach points to the free perks TSSP's writers receive (such as audio recordings and translations), as well as the exposure they'll gain by appearing on TSSP, as "assets" that offset the lack of payment. However, those free perks are not available initially or to everyone. And I would remind authors that "writing for exposure" is only of value if you can confirm that there really is exposure.

I remain concerned about TSSP's indemnification language. And I'm not satisfied by Iftach's response to my question about why TSSP's License to Entry clause extends authors' grant of rights to unnamed third parties. He claims that this is "a common clause in...rights agreements." That's not my impression at all. (Hopefully someone knowledgeable will correct me if I'm wrong.)

I'll keep an eye on TSSP's competition guidelines and update this post when they're amended.

------------------------------

WRITER BEWARE: In emails to me, and in a comment on my post, you've repeatedly stated that TSSP is asking writers to grant only digital rights. But the current language of your contest guidelines' License to Entry clause does not limit the grant of rights to digital only; in fact the word "digital" doesn't appear at all. Can you address this discrepancy?

IFTACH ALONY: TSSP, does not deal with any kind of printed literature, it's one of the project essentials, encouraging "digital literature". I guess that it was so obvious to us, that we didn't pay enough attention. We will correct it, making it clear that the rights to the wining stories are only for the non-exclusive digital rights.

WB: Can you explain why you retain the rights of all writers who enter your contest? Why do you choose not to release those rights back to non-winners?

IA: Our intention is to publish all stories which we find suitable for our UGC platform. This can only be done if we have the writers permission/rights. TSSP has no interest in keeping the rights to non-winners, and we will correct the wording to make it clear that non-winners rights are released. I must admit that we were mostly thinking of how to enable writers to publish and expose their works, enabling TSSP to publish the stories.

WB: Might you be willing to add a clause to your competition guidelines releasing the rights of non-winners once the winners have been chosen?

IA: As mentioned in the previous answer - rights of non-winners will be released. We will keep, for a limited period of 6 months, the writers permission to publish his work on the TSSP UGC platform.

WB: Your License to Entry clause extends the grant of rights to "any person obtaining a copy of the [contest] Entry on Sponsor’s behalf." Can you give me an idea of who those third parties might be, and why you feel it's necessary for them to have a claim on entrants' rights?

IA: I'm not a lawyer, and as I understand, this is a normal and acceptable clause which is part of any agreement TSSP made while purchasing the rights to publish a story, and as far as I understand, it is a common clause in most of the right agreements, especially while dealing with one story.

WB: In an email to me, you mentioned that fair payment for writers is one of TSSP's goals. I wholeheartedly agree! However, the License to Entry clause explicitly states that contest entrants are granting rights "free of charge" in perpetuity. How does this square with your goal of fair payment?

IA: I think that you are missing a main point here, the resources which are invested in publishing a story on TSSP platform - translating to the different languages, recording by a professional narrator, adjusting to the platform technical requirements, creating the image, etc. etc. all those investments are also the writers assets, as he can use them for free!! To be more precise: a) TSSP gives the writer free access and use of the translation and recording. This is worth much more than the story rights, for a very acclaimed writer or a contest winner. b) Publishing the story on the TSSP platform is exposing the work to hundreds of thousands of readers! This gives the writer a unique opportunity to get acquainted by audiences that it would have otherwise been almost impossible to, not to mention the costs it would occur . We strongly think that for a writer, this overall exposure, audio and translation are assets which can be easily measured.

You have partly quoted what I wrote to you – I mentioned that TSSP is in the midst of developing an algorithm that will enable the writer to be part of TSSP revenues.

Generally stating, I don't understand your point – as a writer, I think that having exposure in TSSP ONE story out of a collection, in whatever terms, can be deemed only as a benefit.

WB: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

IA: The Short Story Project's mission is firstly to encourage reading and breaking the language barrier. As I am passionate for short stories, I decided to be active in this, genre. One of TSSP missions is to encourage short literature, making it vibrant and essential. I believe that there is no art as literature, and specifically short story literature, to discover human conditions.

If any further clarifications are needed, do not hesitate approaching me.

Thank You,

Iftach Alony
Founder,
The Short Story Project

UPDATE 9/3/18: As promised, TSSP has amended its Terms & Conditions. Here's the new License to Entry clause:


The grant of rights has been limited to contest winners, and also to publication, reproduction, etc. by "digital means only" (which, it has to be noted, would not rule out print, contrary to what's claimed the comment below from a TSSP staffer).

This is definitely an improvement. However, two of the issues I discuss above have not been addressed: the grant of rights is still extended to "any person obtaining a copy of the Entry on Sponsor's behalf", and the language of indemnification clause, which potentially deprives authors of recourse in the event of intellectual property theft, has not been changed. For me, that's still enough to make this contest a "caution."

August 10, 2018

Contest Beware: Fiction War Magazine


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Fiction War Magazine, owned by Wolvesburrow Productions ("a front-to-back engineer of design, publishing, in print, and online content"), is a publisher of flash fiction (500-1,000 words). In addition to an open call, for which it charges a $5 submission fee via Submittable, it runs regular competitions--for instance, this one, for the third quarter of 2018. The fees for these quarterly contests are quite a bit higher: $25, plus a $3.45 "fee", for a total of $28.45.

Entry fees are not necessarily a sign of a questionable competition--though they do need to be proportional. Presumably, in Fiction War's case, they go to fund the sizeable prizes: $1,000 for the winner and $100 for 14 finalists, all of whom are promised publication in an issue of the magazine.

Prizes or no, $28.45 is still a big entry fee for a 500-1,000 word story--which, to my mind, raises the question of whether Fiction War may have folded some profit in there. I also find it somewhat unsavory that Fiction Wars has an affiliate program, which pays "recruiters" a 25% referral bonus for every registration they refer. (The tag line: "Quickly earn enough to pay your own entry fee!")

These concerns, along with competition guidelines that provide for prize payment "within 30 days of print publication" (it's always a red flag when publishers pay on or after publication, since they may use such provisions to delay or avoid payment--but prize winnings should never made contingent like this), and include language* requiring entrants to grant exclusive first and ongoing non-exclusive publishing rights simply by submitting (in other words, if you submit a story to Fiction War, you cannot ever publish it anywhere else unless Fiction War publishes it first), would be enough for me to advise serious caution to anyone thinking of entering one of Fiction War's competitions.

However, it appears that there are even more pressing reasons to avoid Fiction War.

Over the past two weeks, I've gotten multiple complaints from authors who won the grand prize or were chosen as finalists in one or another of Fiction War's competitions: aggressive editing (to writers concerned about major, and in some cases apparently random, changes to their work, Fiction Wars responded that they could always re-publish the original version elsewhere once the magazine had been released), major editing and proof delays (over a year in some cases), and prize payments delayed by months or absent entirely (see the payment provisions, above).

Although Fiction War is supposed to be quarterly, only two magazines have actually been published, both in 2017. Despite this, and even as timeliness and payment problems continued to develop and compound over the course of 2017 and 2018, Fiction Wars continued to conduct and advertise competitions (and, of course, to collect entry fees).

Writers who contacted me told me that they believe Fiction War is a well-intentioned enterprise that has gotten in over its head. But good intentions and $2.75 will get you on the subway, and if I had a dollar for every well-intentioned publisher I've heard about whose good intentions didn't prevent it from screwing its authors over, I'd have a nice nest egg by now. To me, Fiction War's recent response, to a writer who contacted it to ask about payment, speaks volumes: "Please know that we take defamation very seriously."

As of this writing, Duotrope has de-listed Fiction War.


--------------------------------

* Here's the actual language of the grant of rights clause.


Competitions often require writers to grant various rights upon submitting, as a kind of shortcut ensuring that the competition will have those rights already in hand when winners are chosen. But such a requirement should be temporary, and should always be balanced by language ensuring that rights are released back to entrants if they don't win. There's no such language in Fiction War's guidelines.

UPDATE 8/11/18: Fiction War responds.


It's pretty clear that Fiction War either doesn't understand, or is seriously misinterpreting, its own grant of rights language.

By requiring writers to grant first publishing rights simply by submitting to the contests, and failing to release them from that grant if they aren't chosen for publication, Fiction War is making it impossible for any writer who submits to its contests to publish anywhere else. To put it another way, Fiction War is not only claiming first publication rights for all submissions, it is retaining those rights even for writers who don't win its contests or are not chosen for publication.

It is not uncommon for a competition to claim exclusive first publishing rights if it intends to publish winners, finalists, etc. (even though writers thinking of entering such a competition should consider how long they are willing to have their work off the market). But its guidelines MUST include language releasing that claim THE INSTANT writers are eliminated from the competition. Fiction War currently does not do this.

Also, prize winnings should not be treated like story payments. Publishers can and do pay on or after publication (though this can be a red flag, as indicated above)--but prize winnings should be disbursed immediately upon announcement of the winners, and not made contingent upon a further action, such as publication.

I'm also scratching my head over this, received this morning. I appreciate the polite tone, but...really?
ANOTHER UPDATE 8/11/18: Fiction War continues to respond. Note the reference to "bullies."


UPDATE 8/13/18: Fiction War has added the following to the guidelines on its competition pages, just below the grant of rights language quoted above (though it has not changed its general submission guidelines): "For works not selected for publishing, all rights are solely held by the author."

In private correspondence with me, Fiction War has indicated that this is intended to address the concerns about rights that I've outlined in this post. Unfortunately the language it has chosen is quite vague, and does not make explicitly clear a) that the grant of rights does terminate (unless they surrender copyright, authors always hold all their rights; that's what makes it possible for them to license those rights to others), or b) if it terminates, when (do writers find out they haven't been chosen for publication when competition winners are announced? Some other time?)

Here's the language I suggested to Fiction War: "For writers who are not chosen for publication, this grant of rights terminates immediately upon announcement of the winners."

All of this quibbling over wording may seem trivial, but any writer who's been involved in a dispute over contract terms knows how non-trivial the consequences of vague, imprecise, or incomplete contract language can be. Here's just one example.

August 2, 2018

Author Rachel Ann Nunes Wins Her Copyright Infringement Lawsuit Against an Amazon Scammer


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In 2014, author Rachel Ann Nunes learned that her 1998 novel, A Bid For Love, had been plagiarized in its entirety by someone calling themselves Sam Taylor Mullens. Re-titled The Auction Bid, the book was being sold on Amazon, and the "author" was not only promoting it, but sending copies to reviewers.

Unfortunately for the plagiarist, some of the reviewers had read Nunes's book. Although the plagiarist had switched the narrative from third to first person, the similarities were unmistakable.

Confronted by reviewers about the similarities, the plagiarist did not back down. She claimed she'd collaborated with Nunes; later, she claimed she was Nunes's niece and had given Nunes the idea for the book. She began harassing Nunes, using fake identities to send nasty messages on Goodreads and post one-star reviews of Nunes's novels on Amazon. When Nunes went public about the plagiarism, the plagiarist began harassing reviewers and others who spoke out in support of Nunes. (For screenshots of this and other harassment, see Nunes's blog post.)

The plagiarist was eventually identified (thanks to sleuthing by Nunes's supporters) as Tiffanie Rushton, a third grade teacher from Utah. It turned out that Nunes wasn't the first author Rushton had stolen from. Nor was intellectual property the only thing she'd filched: parents in her school district alleged that she had also used the real names of some of the children in her class as aliases to post reviews of her own and other explicit books.

In August 2014, Nunes filed a copyright infringement complaint against Rushton in Federal court. Nearly four years later, in March 2018, Nunes won the case, with a judgment requiring Rushton to stipulate that her infringement of Nunes's copyright was committed "willfully," and making Rushton liable for the maximum statutory penalty under copyright law of $150,000. Rushton was also ordered to provide and sign an apology letter, which she did (though not without a struggle).
So copyright law and the good guys prevailed--but only at a cost of a lot of time and a lot of money, not to mention untold emotional distress for Nunes. Most authors who find themselves in this position--and many will, plagiarism is a major and ongoing problem, particularly on Amazon--will not have the financial and emotional resources to take the kind of action Nunes did.

That's what the scammers count on.
 
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