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 12, 2019

From Writer Beware's Files: The Seven Most Prolific Vanity Publishers (Plus An Honorable Mention)


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Vanity publishers, unfortunately, are not in short supply. Writer Beware's files include hundreds of them, large and small. But there's a select few about which we hear over and over, via writers' questions and complaints. These companies reel in not dozens, not scores, but hundreds and even thousands of writers, doing business on an industrial scale.

I'm going to provide a snapshot of each of these below. But first, some common deceptive terms.

Hybrid Publisher: There's some disagreement over whether there actually is such a thing as a hybrid publisher--a company that charges substantial fees yet provides a service that's otherwise equivalent to traditional publishing, including rigorous selectivity and editing, high royalties, offline distribution, non-bogus PR, and more. Regardless, the term is extensively misused by vanity publishers trying to look more legitimate. Any publisher billing itself as "hybrid" demands further investigation.

Co-Publishing and Partner Publishing: These are also euphemisms beloved of vanities. The implication is that the publisher contributes something of value to match or exceed whatever the author is being asked to pay or buy: the lion's share of publishing costs, for instance, or some kind of deep publishing expertise.

However, vanity publishing is a whole different business model from traditional publishing, with profits primarily derived not from book sales to the public, but from author fees and self-purchases. Far from being a contribution or a share, your fee will likely cover not just the entire cost of publishing your book, but the publisher's overhead and profit as well. And vanity publishers have little incentive to cut into that profit by providing high-quality publishing and marketing services.

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Writer Beware receives more reports and questions about self-styled "hybrid" Austin Macauley Publishers than we do about any other vanity. Based in the UK, AM has aggressively expanded over the past few years, extending its tentacles into the USA, the UAE, and Australia.

Fees in AM contracts Writer Beware has seen range from £1,275 to £7,700 (the heading of fee disclosure section of AM's contract is "Advances," except that this is an "advance" the author has to pay the publisher). Some authors are offered a choice of fees depending on which book formats they pick.

AM does occasionally offer a fee-free contract. But these are no bargain: among other things, there's no stated term for the grant of rights, and discontinuance of publication is "entirely at the discretion of the publisher"--in effect, a life-of-copyright grant with completely inadequate provisions for rights reversion. Also, as pointed out above, vanity publishing is a very particular business model. It's unlikely the vanity will have the staff expertise, distribution channels, or budget to provide a service that's anywhere near equivalent to what you'd receive from a traditional publisher--even if you don't have to pay a fee.

AM is currently recruiting writers via deceptively-headlined Google ads, which encourage authors who use certain search phrases to believe they are submitting to a Big 5 publisher:

For a more detailed look at AM (including its scurrilous rebuttal to my criticism, which has been removed from the web but survives thanks to the Wayback Machine), see my 2016 blog post: Questions For Vanity Publisher Austin Macauley Yield Few Answers.

As of this writing, AM is overdue on filing financial statements.

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UK-based Pegasus Elliot Mackenzie is the oldest of the companies mentioned in this post, having been in business since the early 2000s. Like Austin Macauley, it claims to offer both traditional and "shared-cost inclusive" (i.e., pay to play) contracts to its authors, which "enables us to provide equal opportunities to both new and established authors" (claiming that new authors are a greater risk than established ones is a common rationale used by vanity publishers to justify their fees).

Like many vanities, Pegasus doesn't mention any actual money amounts on its website, but per reports Writer Beware has received, as well as others that can be found online, fees average around £2,500, with some going lower or higher (the highest we've heard about is £4,500). This is presented to authors as a "contribution"--supposedly, just part of the cost--but as I've explained above, claims of cost-sharing or partnership should be treated with skepticism.

Again like Austin Macauley, Pegasus's contract describes its fee as an "Advance". And speaking of similarities between these two vanities: with just a few exceptions, their author-unfriendly contracts are word-for-word identical.

Coincidence? Synchronicity? Well, consider that AM and Pegasus have shared people, too. Mr. Bu-Azal Bedar, who briefly served as Pegasus's Director and owns more than 50% of shares in the company, was Secretary at Austin Macauley from 2007 to 2012.

That's not all. Mr. Bedar is also Director at Ashwell Publishing Ltd., which does business as Olympia Publishers. Writer Beware doesn't get questions or complaints about Olympia nearly as often as we do about AM and Pegasus, but we've gotten enough to know that it charges similar fees and, amazingly (or maybe not) offers the exact same word-for-word identical contract.

Finally, check out the comments on this review of Olympia by The Independent Publishing Magazine, in which numerous authors report receiving offers not just from Olympia, but from AM or Pegasus as well--or as with this poor fellow, all three:


Things that make you go "hmmmm."

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I've written several times in this blog about Morgan James Publishing--most recently in 2018--regarding its repeated inclusion on Publisher's Weekly's annual list of fast-growing independent publishers.

Morgan James may be "independent," but it's also a vanity publisher. It requires its authors "to commit to purchasing, during the life of the agreement, up to 2,500 copies [of their book] at print cost plus $2." Reports Writer Beware has received indicate that at least some writers are asked for a "deposit" of as much as $5,000 on contract signing. I've also had reports of additional fees for editing and PR.

To make this sizeable outlay of cash seem more palatable, MJP claims on its "compare" page that "Many major houses require authors to purchase 5,000 copies, or more, of the book upon its release", and that even with self-publishing, "[the a]uthor is expected to purchase however many copies required to sell to the general public." Neither of these claims is true.

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Formerly an imprint of Morgan James, Koehler Books claims to offer traditional contracts, though it also appears heavily dependent on a vanity model, which it interchangeably describes as "hybrid publishing", "joint venture" publishing, and "co-publishing". Debut writers are shunted into its Emerging Authors Program, which "is designed primarily for debut or emerging writers who have the talent, but not necessarily the experience or platform, to merit a traditional publishing deal." As I mentioned above, relegating first-time writers to second-class citizenship is a common ploy by which vanity publishers justify their fees.

According to reports I've received, Koehler's fees run between $3,500 and $5,500. I also saw a Koehler contract that required the author to purchase the difference between a sales target of 1,500 copies and actual sales made in the first year after publication.

Koehler is very active on Publishizer, a crowdfunding platform that allows publishers (both reputable and not so much) to scout for manuscripts--so active, in fact, that it has a special recruitment page for Publishizer authors. But hey--they get a discount!

(NOTE: This section has been updated to indicate that Koehler is no longer associated with Morgan James, and to clarify that the contract buyback requirement specified a sales target rather than "remaining stock". Koehler says that it no longer offers contracts with this provision.)

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Page Publishing is one of a triad of sorts, a group of US-based vanity publishers that have very similar fees and business models, and present and advertise themselves in very similar ways. (The other two are Christian Faith Publishing and Newman Springs Publishing, both of which I discuss below). I haven't been able to find any proof that the three are connected (with the exception of one possible coincidence, detailed below), but as you'll see as you read on, the similarities are striking.

Page is the oldest of the three, with a 2011 founding date--although I didn't start getting questions about it until 2013. Many of the authors I've heard from missed the brief reference to "a manageable investment" on Page's About Us page, and assumed its claim to be a "full-service publishing house" meant it was a traditional publisher.

No actual prices are mentioned on Page's website, but based on the many, many reports, questions, and complaints I've received, as well as others that can be found online, Page's fees average in the $3,000-$5,000 range, paid on an installment plan over 10 or 12 months. As with so many vanity publishers, authors can spend hundreds or even thousands beyond their basic fee if they spring for optional promotional packages and materials, such as video trailers and sell sheets.

Page is an aggressive advertiser, with multiple Google ads and the kind of TV ads that run on channels like CNN or Fox News or the History Channel during the afternoon hours and late at night. Its BBB listing is stocked with an improbably large number of five-star reviews (the BBB is not normally a place where writers flock to leave reviews of their publishers)--however, it has also gathered some complaints, which paint a very different picture and echo what I've heard from writers who've contacted me.

Page is one of the most prolific vanities out there; if Amazon is to be believed, it has published over 7,000 books to date. Austin Macauley knows a competitor when it sees one:

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Founded in 2014 by an alumnus of disgraced Christian vanity Tate Publishing, Christian Faith Publishing describes itself as a "full-service book publisher" that "partners" with its authors to deliver "personal care and national marketing exposure." All that's required is "a short-term, affordable monthly installment plan".

Sound familiar?

As with Page, CFP's fees--which it doesn't disclose anywhere on its website--average between $3,000 and $5,000, paid in installments over a period of months. Marketing is an add-on: for instance, $3,400 for a package that includes a "High-Definition Video Trailer", a press release, and a page on CFP's website. (This is not marketing, it's junk. It's not worth one cent, let alone four figures.)

Again like Page, CFP is an aggressive advertiser, with a similar range of Google and TV ads. Its BBB listing too boasts hundreds of five-star reviews...along with the inevitable complaints that tell a different story.

Remember the possible coincidence I mentioned in my discussion of Page, above? Check out CFP's corporation directors:


See the third name on the list? Dustin Roberts is the name of Page Publishing's CEO. Could this be a different Dustin Roberts? Sure. But given the nature of both businesses, one could be pardoned for wondering.

CFP is currently the subject of a wage and hour lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleges that they and others were not paid overtime. Dismissed in 2018 in favor of the plaintiff due to CFP's failure to appear or defend, the case was re-opened in 2019, and the plaintiff is now seeking a class action.

This summary of the lawsuit includes some interesting details about what CFP employees do:


Full-service, indeed.

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Newman Springs Publishing, the third of the triad, is the baby of the bunch, having opened its doors in early 2017. Its first books didn't come out until June 2018, but it hasn't been idle: according to Amazon, it already has a catalog of nearly 400 titles.

Like CFP and Page, Newman Springs styles itself a "partner publisher," and employs a similarly modest--and non-specific--description of its fees ("a relatively inexpensive initial investment"). According to reports I've received, as well as others that can be found online, "relatively inexpensive" means the same price range as CFP and Page: somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000, paid in installments over 10 or 12 months. Additional money may be due for extras like video trailers.

Newman Springs uses the same advertising tactics as CFP and Page: Google ads and late-night TV commercials. Also similar is its BBB listing, which includes a suspiciously large--and growing--array of five-star reviews. It hasn't been in business long enough to score any complaints, but I'm sure those are coming.

June 20, 2019

How Predatory Companies Are Trying to Hijack Your Publisher Search, Part 2


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Last year, I published a post on the perils of searching for a publisher on the internet using general phrases like "how to get published" or "how to find a publisher".

While such searches turn up excellent resources (such as Jane Friedman's Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published), a lot of what you'll see on the first couple of pages (which is as far as most people look), is useless or worse: ads from vanity publishers, fake consumer guides where dubious companies like Xlibris pay for advertising, and sites that purport to match authors with appropriate publishers, but are really ways of generating leads for assisted self-publishing companies.

Here's another tricky method that at least one vanity publisher is employing to hijack your publisher search: Google Ads.

Google Ads enable anyone to drive traffic to their website by paying for keywords or phrases. The ad headline can be accurate, or it can be a total lie: Google doesn't care. For instance: as of this writing, if you search on "Random House submissions" (with or without quotes), here's what you get:
See the URL for the top listing? It steers you not to Random House, as the headline suggests, but to vanity publisher Austin Macauley (you can see my blog post about Austin Macauley and its four-figure fees here).

Or how about a search for "Simon and Schuster submissions"?

The first listing, not surprisingly, is for the super-expensive Archway Publishing, which Simon & Schuster owns (but outsources to Author Solutions). The second listing, though...Austin Macauley. Again.

Austin Macauley is spreading a wide net. Here's another one:
And also this:
Austin Macauley periodically changes its ads and keywords, though not its strategy. In May, the top listings for searches on "submit to Random House," "submit to Simon and Schuster", and "submit to HarperCollins" were ads steering traffic to AM, with headlines only slightly less deceptive than the current crop:


And this, from back in February:
No doubt there are many more I've missed. How many unsuspecting writers, aspiring to submit to a major traditional publisher, have been diverted to Austin Macauley as a result of encountering these ads? True, the ads identify themselves as ads, but many people miss this, ignore it, or don't realize what it means.

There are plenty of sleazy internet strategies to entrap unwary authors, but this is definitely one of the most brazen and offensive I've encountered. I wonder if PRH, which seems to be the main focus of AM's efforts, might want to do something about it.

April 26, 2019

Awards Profiteers: How Writers Can Recognize Them and Why They Should Avoid Them


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Lately I'm seeing frequent ads on Facebook for high-entry fee literary awards, such as the International Book Awards ($89 per entry, though if you enter by April 30 you can get a special early bird rate of $69). It's sponsored by American Book Fest (formerly known, at various times, as USA Book News, JPX Media, and i310 Media Group), which also runs the Best Book Awards, the Bookvana Awards, and the American Fiction Awards--all with the same huge entry fees.

I've also heard from a number of writers who've been directly solicited by a similar high-entry fee awards program, the Book Excellence Awards:


Legit awards don't solicit, and they certainly don't offer special sale prices (the pre-sale amount is a whopping $110). The Book Excellence Awards are run by Literary Excellence Incorporated, and as yet are the only awards program offered by that company--but I'm sure that will change. Profiteering awards often come in clusters.

So what is a profiteering award? Why are such awards a "beware"? Read on. What follows is a post I originally put online in 2015, but is still very relevant today. I've updated it to reflect changes in prices and details, and also to add some newer profiteers that have sprung up in the past few years.

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If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you may have guessed that I'm not a big fan of writing contests and awards.

Partly this is because so many are a waste of time, with minimal prizes, negligible prestige, and little or no name recognition. Why not spend your energy on something that can get you closer to building a readership--submitting for publication, or publishing on your own?

There's also the risk of bad things in the entry guidelines--for instance, the My Best Story Competition, where the grant of publishing rights is extended to any "third party" obtaining a copy of the entry. Writers who don't read the fine print carefully enough may find themselves trapped by such provisions.

And then there are the contests/awards with a hidden agenda: making money for the sponsor. Such awards aren't really about honoring writers at all.

There's a complex of red flags that identifies profiteering contest and awards programs.

- Solicitation. To maximize entries, profiteering awards and contests often solicit entries. An out-of-the-blue email, or an ad on Facebook, urging you to enter a contest or awards program should always be treated with caution.

- High entry fees. Profiteers charge $60, $75, $100, or even more. There may be "early bird specials" and multiple-entry discounts to tempt authors with the illusion of a bargain. And that's not counting the books you'll have to send for award consideration--a considerable expense, if the profiteer only accepts print.

- Dozens or scores of entry categories. To maximize income, profiteers create as many entry categories as possible, and encourage multiple entries.

- Anonymous judging. Profiteers promise expert judging by people with standing in the writing and publishing field, but don't reveal the identities of these purported experts. In fact, the judging may be done by the profiteer's staff, who may simply pick winners out of a hat. One of the things that lends credibility to a contest or award is the prestige of its judges...which is why you always want to know who they are, and should always be suspicious if that information is not provided.

- Non-prize prizes. To avoid cutting into their profits, profiteers offer prizes that cost them little or nothing: press releases, media announcements, database and website listings, features on satellite websites or in self-owned publications. Some offer little more than the supposed honor of winning the award.

- Opportunities to spend more money. Profiteers' profits don't just come from entry fees. They also hawk stickers, certificates, critiques, and more.

Profiteers may deviate from this template to some degree: some do provide money prizes, for instance, and not all of them solicit. But if more than four of these red flags are present in a contest or awards program--especially if the entry fee is above $50--you should think very carefully about entering.

What about prestige? Profiteer awards and contests don't typically command a lot of (or any) name recognition, but if you win or place, you'll be able to tag your book as an "award-winning book" and yourself as an "award-winning author." This is often touted by the profiteers as a major benefit for winners and finalists. How much readers care about such designations, though, is an open question--especially where they've never heard of the award or contest. Do you really want to risk losing a $75 or $100 entry fee for that?

Profiteer awards and contests overwhelmingly target and ensnare small press and self-published authors. It's not uncommon to see books that sport several of these awards, in some cases representing an outlay of hundreds of dollars--and that's not counting the awards the authors may have entered and lost. But such awards are nothing more than a cynical play on authors' hunger for recognition and exposure in an increasingly crowded marketplace. They are never a worthwhile use of writers' money.

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The Alliance of Independent Authors provides ratings for dozens of awards and contests, with Caution notices for those that are suspect. It's a good list to check before submitting.

Some examples of awards/contest profiteers:

JM Northern Media runs more than 20 literary "festivals" and conventions. JM Northern is a ferocious spammer; if you're a writer, you've probably been solicited for one or another of its festivals.

Unlike many other profiteers, JM Northern offers actual money prizes. But it can afford to. According to an article in Examiner.com that's no longer accessible online, JM Northern's Hollywood Book Festival received 2,740 entries in 2012. At $75 per entry, that's a gross of $205,500. Let's assume that the other 20+ festivals, most of which have a lower fee of $50, also get a lower number of entries--say, 1,500 (I'm lowballing to demonstrate how insanely lucrative this scheme is). Altogether, that's over $1.5 million just in entry fees. A year. When you add in revenue from the critiques and merchandise (likely provided by JM Northern's own Modern Media Publicity), it wouldn't surprise me to learn that JM Northern's annual festival gross is well over $2 million.

My 2013 blog post offers a more detailed look at JM Northern: Awards Profiteering: The Book Festival Empire Of JM Northern Media.

The Jenkins Group, a costly self-publishing services provider, runs at least six awards programs: Moonbeam Children's Book Awards, Axiom Book Awards, eLit Awards, Living Now Book Awards, Illumination Book Awards, and the IPPY Awards. Entry fees range from $70 to $95, and there's the usual raft of entry categories and non-prize prizes.

Even among profiteers, Jenkins is unusual in the amount of extra merchandise it hawks to winners. For instance, check out the options for Moonbeam Award winners--no fewer than 35 items, ranging in price from $5 (for a "Certificate Presentation Folder") to $130 (for a Moonbeam Gold Medal--not even a real medal, just an image) to $1,423 (for a marketing" package that includes such junk marketing services as book fair display and press releases).

- The National Association of Book Entrepreneurs (NABE), which claims to have been in business for 32 years, sponsors the Pinnacle Book Achievement Awards. The $90 entry fee includes NABE membership (the benefits of which are unclear), and there are more than 50 entry categories. The prizes--press releases, mentions on the NABE website and in its "bookselling magazine"--are a prime example of how profiteers maximize profit by offering prizes that cost them little or nothing to provide. There's also the usual opportunity to order stickers and "beautiful Certificates".

- WILDsound, another prolific spammer, runs continuous monthly contests and "festival events" for screenplays, books, poetry, short stories, and more. Fees range from $25 ("$10 OFF regular submission") for a first scene to $170 for a full novel, but average around $45. Judging is done by the usual cadre of unnamed "Professional Writers and Writing Consultants"; prizes are readings by--it's claimed--professional actors. You can sample these poor-quality videos here.

- Readers Favorite touts an array of tempting possible benefits for winners of its annual book award, including a read by a film company, consideration by an independent publisher, and evaluation by a literary agent. Interestingly, though, there's nothing to suggest that any authors have been picked up as a result.

Prizes for this award are a bit more prizelike than those offered by many profiteers, with an awards dinner and a free roll of stickers (any more, though, and you'll have to pay). Otherwise, it's the usual cheap junk: press releases, book fair display, a website listing. Entry fees, which will run you $99 to $119 depending on when you register, are maximized by the more than 140 entry categories. And that's not the only way to spend money. You can also buy a book review, or purchase "expert" writing services--all provided by people who are unnamed, and therefore unverifiable.

Readers Favorite, which actively courts writing- and publishing-related businesses like BookBaby and advertises its award via, among other things, an affiliate program that pays 20% for successful referrals, is one of the higher-profile profiteers. Along with countless authors who could have found a much better use for their money, some celebrities have fallen for it.

Literary Classics runs the International Book Awards ($88 entry fee, 31 entry categories), as well as the Top Honors Children's and YA Book Awards (Enchanted Page Children's Book Award, Eloquent Quill Award, Lumen Award for Literary Excellence, and Words on Wings Young Adult Book Award--at $48 per entry, relatively inexpensive for a profiteer). Judging is by an unnamed "selection committee". There's an awards presentation, as part of a related book festival, but other than that, all winners get is a certificate and a "digital award seal"--and, of course, the opportunity to buy stickers and medals.

- Smarketing LLC runs a trio of awards, all of which were originally founded by book shepherd Ellen Reid: the  Body, Mind, Spirit Book Awards ($75 per entry, over 50 categories); the National Indie Excellence Awards ($75 to enter, over 150 categories); and the Beverly Hills Book Award ($75 per entry, over 150 categories). Like other profiteers, none of these awards programs names its judges ("to respect their privacy") and all sell stickers, certificates, and medals.

For all three awards, the main prize is "exposure", via press releases and website announcements (and we all know what, in most cases, "exposure" is worth). Each award also includes one or more donated prizes for one or more select winners. In other words, none of these prizes cost the sponsor a penny. Talk about maximizing profit.

Interestingly, the National Indie Excellence Awards (though not the other two) has this proscription:

Hmmm.

- Reader Views, a.k.a. Book by Book Publicity, sponsors the Reviewers Choice Annual Literary Awards, which will set you back $89 per entry into any of its more than 50 categories. Prizewinners get a seal and a certificate, with select prizewinners eligible for more--primarily, features on Reader Views and Book by Book Publicity websites and publications, as well as some donated prizes (in other words, they involve minimal cost). Judging is done by Reader Views reviewers (Reader Views sells reviews as part of its publicity packages)--none of whom are named.

Global Ebook Awards capitalizes on the name of Dan Poynter, one of the original pioneers of self-publishing. Entry costs $79, with over 100 entry categories. A whole section of the website discusses judging and judges--but (surprise!) provides no actual names or bona fides. As with so many other profiteers, the prize is "exposure", via press releases and website features: cheap for the awards program, negligible for the winners. And of course, winners are "eligible to purchase Global Ebook Award certificates attesting to their honor".

March 28, 2019

Caution: Turkish Publisher Mavifil Publishing (Mavifil Yayinlari)


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In December 2011, I wrote a blog post about a Turkish publisher called Arvo Basim Yayin, which was contacting self-pubbed and small press authors out of the blue and offering to buy Turkish rights to their books.
Arvo signed up at least ten writers as a result of these approaches, some with multiple books (those are only the writers whose names I know; according to my sources, there are probably many more). Both royalty-only and licensing-fee-plus-royalties contracts were offered; the licensing fees ranged from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on the number of books involved. Publication was supposed to begin in September.

Some of the books have indeed been published. But others have missed multiple publication dates--and it appears that no one, including the authors whose books were published, has been paid.

Authors who've attempted to contact [Arvo] about the problems say they've gotten a raft of excuses--financial difficulties, personal and family ill health, religious holidays, trips out of town--along with repeated promises that schedules would be straightened out and monies owed would be forthcoming. As of this writing, none of those promises have been fulfilled.
I emailed Arvo myself to ask about all this. It readily admitted to the problems, offering a familiar excuse--financial difficulties--and a novel one--broken printing machines--to justify them, but claimed that everything was being addressed and payments and publication were imminent. Over the following months, however, no checks arrived and no books appeared, and authors who tried to follow up were fobbed off with the same bogus-sounding excuses.

The last I heard of Arvo was a July 2012 update from an author whose books actually were published, but never paid for. This author never even got their author copies, despite being told multiple times that the books were on the way.

So why am I writing about a deadbeat publisher from 2011? Because it appears to still be in business, and has once again started recruiting writers, under a different name.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've heard from three self-pubbed authors who've been approached (with identical emails) by editors from Mavifil Yayinlari (Mavifil Publishing), offering to purchase Turkish rights to their books. The offer: translation and 8% royalties on the first 1,000 books. This is the same offer that was made by Arvo; the out-of-the-blue solicitations are also the same. But there's more.

Mavifil is a children's publisher, described by the editor as a "new" "subsidiary company" of another publisher, Pagoda Publishing. Pagoda appears to include three imprints: Pagoda, Mavifil...and Arvo. On the Pagoda website header (which appears at the top of this post), the Arvo logo is different from the original one that you can see above--but the covers of a large number of the company's published books display that original Arvo logo. Also, I recognize many titles by authors who contacted me in 2011.

Additionally, Volkan Dogan, Arvo's Manager or Editor in Chief (I'm not sure of his exact title), who signed Arvo contracts in 2011, shows up on a websearch as Pagoda's Editor in Chief, including on LinkedIn. His name also appears on some of the contact emails Mavifil has sent out.

It's pretty clear that Mavifil is part of a publishing company run by the same person or people who ran Arvo in 2011--a publishing company that continues to sell books from authors who, in 2011 and 2012, reported not being paid. Were the missing payments ever remitted? Could Mr. Dogan and his enterprise have cleaned up their act and conquered the problems they were having in 2011? It's possible. But the history here is sufficiently troubling that I think a strong caution is in order about all three of these imprints: Arvo, Pagoda, and especially Mavifil, given that it's actively soliciting writers.

As an additional concern, Mavifil doesn't appear to have published anything yet. Three books on the company's website sport the Mavifil elephant logo, but per my research, two were originally published by Pagoda, and one has no web presence at all. Also worth noting: in extended discussion with one of the authors who contacted me, Mavifil's editor did not appear to be familiar with the concept of an advance.

UPDATE 3/29/19: Since putting this post online, I've heard from two more authors who've been solicited by Mavifil. Both received identical solicitations, as well as identical responses to "tell me more about you" questions. The company seems to be relying heavily on canned emails, possibly because of the language barrier.

Also, Pagoda Publishing's homepage link was returning 404 messages for a while. Coincidence? Maybe. The link to its published books still works, but here's a screenshot, just in case.


I've also now seen one of Mavifil's contracts. To say it's rudimentary is a giant understatement. See below. Beyond the poor English, there are many important things missing, including a grant-of-rights term, a payment schedule for royalties, assurance of a "faithful and accurate" translation, assurance of a copyright notice in the author's name, provision for rights reversion if the publisher fails to comply with the agreement--just to name a few.

UPDATE 3/31/19: I reached out to several of the writers who contacted me in 2011 about Arvo. I've heard back from one of them so far, who confirms that they were never paid for the multiple books "purchased" by Arvo (and still on sale from Pagoda). So I guess that answers the question about whether the company has cleaned up its act.

February 28, 2019

AMS Literary Agency: Approach With Caution


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

When Writer Beware was founded, an embarrassingly long time ago, most of the questions and complaints we received involved literary agents: from scammers charging fees or engaging in kickback schemes, to well-intentioned amateurs with no idea how to do the job, to the occasional stranger-than-fiction episode--such as the saga of Melanie Mills a.k.a. Lisa Hackney (a multiply-aliased faker who staged her own death in order to steal money from clients and turned out to be wanted for attempted murder) and the hoax perpetrated by Christopher Hill (who fabricated publisher submissions, comments, and even contracts in a massively complicated scheme to deceive clients).

But times have changed. Major shifts in the publishing world have created alternatives to the traditional get-an-agent-to-land-a-publisher route to publication. With agents no longer the be-all and end-all of a writing career, it's become a lot tougher for a scam agent to make a living. As a result, literary agency scams have become rare. Even amateur agencies are much less common than they used to be.

They're still a potential danger, though, so when I stumbled across AMS Literary Agency, a new venture (domain registered only last month) with a ton of red flags, it seemed like a good subject for a blog post. When I started writing, I thought I'd just be doing an expose on an amateur agency. What I actually found is...more complicated.

Here's AMS's solicitation for clients, posted on Instagram and Facebook:


AMS's website exhibits a host of warning signs.

No agent names or bios. Reputable agencies list their staff. If you don't know who the agents are, you have no way to tell whether they're competent.

No client list or list of sales. Again, this is data that's front and center on reputable agencies' websites (among other things, it's a way of advertising their success). Of course, a new agency that's still recruiting clients and pursuing sales may not have anything to list yet (which is another reason why it's important to know who the agents are and whether they're qualified). But AMS's privacy policy suggests that it never will provide this information:


I'm no expert on Canadian privacy laws, but authors' names and book titles are hardly confidential information--publishers would face quite the challenge if they were--and other Canadian literary agencies don't seem to have a problem disclosing clients and sales. Invoking confidentiality makes it equally possible for AMS to say anything or nothing, and impossible for writers to verify either way--very convenient, if an agency is placing books with unsavory publishers, or not managing to make any sales at all.

An emphasis on new and unpublished writers. An agency that's actively recruiting new and unpublished writers may be doing so because they are easier to bamboozle.

Perpetuation of a myth about copyright. This is what's known as "poor man's copyright", and it's bunk. Any genuine publishing professional should know better.


As mentioned above, AMS's website and social media don't identify any staff members...but here's a name, from a text exchange with a writer who inquired about submitting:
If you were around for the early days of Writer Beware, that name may ring a bell. Don Phelan (full name: Donald Thomas Phelan) was the CEO of notorious vanity publisher Commonwealth Publications of Canada, which bilked hundreds of writers out of millions of dollars in the mid- to late 1990s, and was the subject of a massive class action lawsuit that resulted in a $10,000,000 judgment on behalf of defrauded authors (none of which was ever paid). After Commonwealth closed down, Phelan and his wife started a ghostwriting business that also was the subject of complaints, and later went out of business.

You can read all about it at the Writer Beware website.

Could this possibly be the same Don Phelan? I'm always cautious about making assumptions, so I put it down to coincidence. Surely it was more plausible to assume that there were two Don Phelans than that the perpetrator of one of the most expensive publishing scams ever would show up 20-plus years later at the head of a brand-new literary agency.

Then I found this, in the Visitor Posts section of AMS's Facebook page:


My first reaction was that if either were still alive, both Cartland and her long-time agent, Doreen Montgomery of Rupert Crew Limited--the agency that represented Cartland throughout her career and still does--might be startled to learn this. And yet...another bell was ringing. Didn't Commonwealth at one point re-publish some of Cartland's backlist? Or was I mis-remembering?

I googled, and sure enough, found this rather snarky account in the September 29, 1997 issue of The Independent:
A breathless press release has arrived from across the water. "Looking to establish itself among the top romance publishers, Canada's Commonwealth Publications proudly announces the recent signing of `the world's most published romance author of all time'." On Valentine's Day next year, the company will launch Dame Barbara Cartland's 24-book Classic Romances series, "twelve previously released classic novels and twelve new, previously unpublished, heart-warming romantic tales". Among them: her "critically acclaimed" novel Enchanted. The notion that Cartland could help "establish" a publisher - let alone one whose alleged intent is to showcase "young and talented first-time authors" - suggests Commonwealth is perilously out of touch. For years, even Mills & Boon has politely declined to publish Cartland, whose audience is to be found only in such places as China, India and Russia.
Enchanted, the novel mentioned, was indeed published by Commonwealth. I couldn't find any others.

That's not the only Phelan/Cartland/Commonwealth past-present connection. In 1997, Commonwealth published a commemorative biography of Princess Diana, with much ballyhoo over the foreward by Barbara Cartland. Here is the very same book, re-published as an ebook in 2017--with the identical cover--by Donald T. Phelan.

Instead of an inflated lie, could AMS's claim in the visitor post be the literal truth? Donald T. Phelan did work with Cartland. And he certainly "handled" (in the sense of "took loads of money from") hundreds of "other authors". Could AMS Literary's Don Phelan actually be Commonwealth's Don Phelan, back in the writer biz after more than 20 years?

I thought I'd ask, via AMS's Contact form.

I received this response the next day:


Why, indeed. Some back and forth ensued, with me continuing to (politely) ask questions, and AMS continuing to (brusquely) refuse answers. Eventually they decided they'd had enough:


That's me schooled.

Bottom line: Don Phelan or no Don Phelan, there are abundant reasons to regard AMS Literary Agency with caution, just based on the many red flags at its website.

UPDATE 3/1/19: AMS has deleted from its Facebook page the visitor posts mentioned above. Lucky I took a screenshot, eh?

February 22, 2019

Publishing Contract Red Flag: When a Publisher Claims Copyright on Edits


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

It's not all that common, but I do see it from time to time in small press publishing contracts that I review: a publisher explicitly claiming ownership of the editing it provides, or making the claim implicitly by reverting rights only to the original manuscript submitted by the author.

Are there legal grounds for such a claim? One would think that by printing a copyright notice inside a published book, and registering copyright in the author's name or encouraging the author to do so, publishers are acknowledging that there is not. It's hard to know, though, because it doesn't seem to have been tested in the courts. There's not even much discussion of the issue. Where you do find people talking about it, it's in the context of editors as independent contractors, such as how authors hiring freelancers should make sure they own the editor's work product, or how freelance editors might use a claim of copyright interest as leverage in payment disputes.

In 2011, Romance Writers of America published a brief legal opinion on its website (still on the website, but unfortunately no longer accessible by the public), indicating that the claim would probably not prevail in court. But that's the only legal discussion I've been able to find.

The legal ambiguity of a copyright claim on editing is good reason to treat it as a publishing contract red flag. But that's not all.

It's not standard industry practice. No reputable publisher that I know of, large or small, deprives the author of the right to re-publish the final edited version of their book, either in its contracts or upon rights reversion. One might argue that in pre-digital days, this wasn't something publishers needed to consider--books, once reverted, were rarely re-published--whereas these days it's common for authors to self-publish or otherwise bring their backlists back into circulation. But publishers haven't been slow to lay claim to the new rights created by the digital revolution. If there were any advantage to preventing writers from re-publishing their fully-edited books, you can bet it would have become common practice. It hasn't.

Publishers can and do legitimately claim ownership of their own work product, such as cover art, design, and formatting. But is editing the publisher's work product? Editing is--or should be--a collaboration between author and editor. The editor makes suggestions; the author implements them. In any fully-edited manuscript, it's likely that most if not all of the actual re-writing and revision will have been done by the author. Why should a publisher be able to claim ownership of that?

Finally, there's the question of benefit or damage. What material benefit does a publisher gain by forbidding an author to re-publish their fully-edited book? How does it damage a publisher if a rights-reverted book is brought back into circulation as originally published? Other than satisfying a misguided and pointless desire for possession or control, none and not at all.

Nevertheless, through ignorance, possessiveness, or simple greed, publishers sometimes do make this claim. As far as I can tell, this is strictly a phenomenon of the small press world; I've never seen it in a contract from a larger publisher. Below are some examples of the kind of language you may encounter (all bolding is mine).

This is from Uncial Press:
Contract may be terminated by either the author or publisher with a 90-day written, certified mail notice or other receipted or traceable delivery service, and all rights to the original, unedited manuscript granted the publisher will revert to Author at the time of the termination.
From Idyll Arbor, Inc.:
An editor will be assigned by Company to prepare the Book for publication. All editorial changes will remain the property of Company.
In this recent contract from Totally Entwined Group (which also does business as Totally Bound), the publisher appears to be claiming ownership not just of edits, but of the edited book itself. The publisher may not actually intend such a sweeping claim--small presses often don't fully understand the implications of their own contract language. But as written, this clause is seriously problematic.
The Publisher shall own all intellectual property rights in any edited version of the Original Work, including, but not limited to, the Final Edited Version (and the Author hereby unconditionally assigns such rights to the Publisher)
Some publishers use a copyright claim on edits as a way to make a buck as the author goes out the door. This is also Totally Entwined/Totally Bound, from an older version of its contract (the money demand does not appear in the recent contract quoted above):
Upon expiration of this Agreement, should the Author wish to acquire rights to the final edited version of the Work, the Author agrees to pay the Publisher:
2.5.1 £250.00 for a Novel;
2.5.2 £80.00 Novella;
2.5.3 £40.00 a Short Story.
2.6 In consideration of any payment made according to clause 2.5 or clause 2.7, the Publisher and the editing staff agree to release any and all further claim to payment for the final edited version of the Work.
Storm Moon Press also wants to retain the right to edits, though its demand for payment appears only to apply to its own formatting and typesetting (to which publishers typically do claim ownership).
All rights to the original Work as submitted will revert to the Author without prejudice upon expiration of this contract. Should the Author wish to acquire rights to the final formatted and typeset digital files, he or she agrees to compensate Publisher in the amount of two hundred dollars ($200). In consideration of this payment, Publisher agrees to release any and all further claim to compensation for the finished Work.
Some of the same language appears in this contract from eXtasy Books Inc.--but note how the payment demand has been shifted to "the final edited version."
All rights to the original Work as submitted will revert to Author without prejudice upon expiration of Contract. Should Author wish to acquire rights to the final edited version, he or she agrees to compensate the assigned editor and/or copyeditor in the amount of $500 less royalties received for the editor or $250 less royalties received for the copyeditor. In consideration of this payment, the editor/copyeditor agrees to release any and all further claim to compensation for the finished Work.
Crooked Cat Publishing's contract does not include a copyright claim on editing--but it makes the demand after the fact, in its reversion notice. Beyond any other legal questions, a publisher has zero standing to demand something that's not in the contract.
We kindly ask that you NOT use the completed final, edited copy of this title to re-submit elsewhere or self-publish. We request that you make changes, however subtle, to the content of the edited, released version, so that it is not an exact re-publication of the version we published.
Claret Press is another publisher that makes extra-contractual claims on editing, using this dubious logic:
At the moment, because you have not paid for...edits, the intellectual property still belongs to [the publisher]. If you do not use any aspect of the edits, then you do not have to pay....If however, when you publish the books, there is any aspect of any piece of your writing that relates to anything in the...edits...then you have violated [the publisher's] ownership of...intellectual property.
Writer Beware, indeed.

For any lawyers reading, I'd be interested to know your thoughts on this issue.

February 14, 2019

Publishizer: Do Authors Really Need a Crowdfunding Literary Agency?


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Publishizer bills itself as "the world's first crowdfunding literary agency." What does that actually mean? From the company's FAQ:
Publishizer is a crowdfunding platform that matches authors with publishers. Authors write proposals, readers pre-order copies, and publishers express interest to contact authors. Publishizer queries publishers based on pre-orders milestones at the end of the campaign. The author receives a range of offers, and selects the best one.
As near as I can figure (Publishizer's FAQ and Terms of Use are annoyingly non-specific about the details of the process), here's how it works. Authors post their proposals on the Publishizer website, offering perks and incentives, Kickstarter-style, to encourage readers to pre-order. If the campaign reaches 250 pre-orders, Publishizer pitches the proposal to its independent publisher partners. A 500 pre-order benchmark garners a pitch to traditional publishers (which Publishizer defines as high advance-paying publishers that don't charge fees). Below 250 pre-orders, the pitch is to "hybrid" and "service" publishers (i.e., companies that do charge fees).

Campaigns are active for 30 days. Once they end, Publishizer releases pre-order income to the authors (authors keep the money they raise, regardless of how many pre-orders they generate). Authors are then responsible for fulfilling the pre-orders or persuading their chosen publisher to do so--or for refunding backers if the author chooses not to publish (Publishizer's Terms make it very clear that they do not get involved in this process). Publishizer keeps a 30% commission (a good deal higher than other crowdfunding sites; Kickstarter's commission, for instance, is 5%).

All in all, Publishizer sounds less like a literary agency than a crowdfunding variation on the manuscript pitch sites of old, where writers posted proposals and book excerpts for publishers and literary agencies to sort through in search of new properties and clients. Most of these sites, which were billed as replacements of, or at least competitors with, the old-fashioned system of gatekeepers, no longer exist, for a simple reason: publishing professionals never really embraced them. (For a discussion of some of the reasons why, see my 2015 blog post.)

Publishizer's pre-order component does add a contemporary element, in that it could suggest reader interest to a prospective publisher (indeed, that's one way Publishizer promotes the site to publishers). But what kind of publishers actually look for authors on Publishizer? One of the historical problems with pitch sites has been that, even if they could recruit reputable users, they were just as likely to attract questionable and marginal ones. Do high-level, reputable publishers--the kind you might need an agent for--actually use Publishizer?

The answer, as far as I can tell: not so much.

A Look at Publishizer Book Deals

Take, for example, Publishizer's list of member publishers. They're categorized as traditional (no fees, high advances); independent (no fees and no or modest advances); hybrid (fees); and service (self-publishing or assisted self-publishing). There are some agent-only publishers in the first two categories--but also many that authors can approach on their own, no agent needed. Of more concern is the fact that both the "traditional" and "independent" categories include a number of publishers that are nothing of the sort: they either charge fees or have book purchase requirements. (Publishizer is aware of this: see below.) Perhaps the most egregious of these mis-listings: the one for Elm Hill, HarperCollins Christian Publishing's fantastically expensive assisted self-publishing division, which shows up under traditional publishers.

Next, Publishizer's case studies of authors who found publishers via the site. Included are some solid independents (several of which accept submissions directly from authors), and an imprint of the Big 5. However, there's also Austin Macauley, an expensive vanity publisher that I've written about here, and Harvard Square Editions, a small press that pays royalties on net profit (at substandard percentages) and at one point was requiring authors to get their mss. "externally edited".

Next, the testimonials hosted on Publishizer's homepage. These too mention a number of genuine independent publishers--but also Koehler Books, which offers "co-publishing" contracts costing several thousand dollars (yet is listed by Publishizer as an independent publisher). The testimonial that cites HarperCollins turns out actually to mean expensive self-pub provider Elm Hill (see above).

It's much the same for the "Browse Recent Deals" animation at the top of Publishizer's homepage. Alongside reputable independents are acquisitions by fee-based companies including Morgan James Publishing (like Koehler, listed as an independent publisher despite its 2,500 book purchase requirement), Lifestyle Entrepreneurs Press, and i2i Publishing, plus at least three publishers that have managed to issue only one book to date: Sage & Feathers Press, Time Traveller Books, and Christel Foord. A book purportedly published by "Harper Voyage" [sic] turns out to be self-published (and no wonder: every single one of the companies that expressed interest in the writer's campaign are fee-chargers or self-publishing service providers).

Browsing recently completed campaigns makes it even clearer that pay-to-play publishers, marginal publishers, and assisted self-publishing services are major users of the site. Take a look at the publishers that expressed interest in this campaign, which I picked at random. Two have questionable contracts or business practices (Black Rose Writing and Anaphora Literary Press--I've gotten complaints about both). Two are vanities (Morgan James Publishing and Koehler Books). The rest are either fee-charging "hybrids" (I put that in quotes because most so-called hybrids are either vanities or jumped-up self-publishing service providers) or assisted self-publishing companies. Just one is a genuine independent (The Story Plant). (The author chose Morgan James.)

Or this campaign, also picked at random. There's interest from two independent publishers (Karen McDermott, about which I know nothing, but which, based on its self-description, would not seem to be appropriate for the book on offer; and SkyHorse Publishing, an established indie), plus one that has misleadingly listed itself as an independent but is actually "shared risk", a.k.a. pay-to-play (ShieldCrest Publishing). Also one questionable publisher (Anaphora again); four fee-chargers (i2i Publishing, Isabella Media Inc., WiDo Publishing, and Prodigy Gold Books, about which I've received reports of unprofessionalism); and five assisted self-publishing services. (The author chose to self-publish.)

I didn't cherry-pick those two examples, by the way. I looked at at least twenty recent campaigns, and all showed a similar pattern.

Most revealing is the list of 268 books that have been published as a result of campaigns on Publishizer. As a Publishizer representative pointed out to me, many of these campaigns are from the company's early years, when it was strictly a crowdfunding platform. But of the approximately 195 that have been published since Publishizer's publisher-matching component was launched in 2016 (and yes, I looked at every single one):
  • At least 16 books have been acquired by vanity publishers, including Morgan James, Austin Macauley, and Koehler Books. (Koehler has snapped up so many authors via Publishizer that it has a special page for them on its website. It even offers "a discount".)
  • More than 130 additional authors have chosen either to self-publish, or to pay for publication through so-called hybrids or assisted self-publishing services.
  • Of the remaining 45 or so books, most have found homes with smaller presses to which the authors could have submitted on their own--not all of them desirable, as noted above.
  • Only a handful--fewer than 10--have signed up with bigger houses.
"Many Have Satisfying Experiences"

As of this writing, Publishizer makes this promise on its homepage:
Clearly, that claim is not accurate--at least as to the "traditional" part. When I contacted Publishizer to ask about it, a company representative told me that 9 out of 10 Publishizer clients land "a" book deal, but acknowledged that the current wording of the claim is misleading and promised to flag it for the team's attention.

I asked whether Publishizer is aware that its lists of traditional and independent publishers include a number of fee-chargers. The representative indicated that Publishizer does know this. "It is no secret that some traditional publishers also offer hybrid deals or even accept payment to publish a book - it just isn't publicised. We have had hybrid publishers sign traditional deals with some of our authors."

Leaving aside other issues--including the false (but unfortunately quite common) idea that traditional publishers often engage in secret vanity deals, and the fact that publishers that rely on author fees rarely provide high-quality editing, marketing, or distribution--this obviously doesn't square with how Publishizer defines traditional and independent publishers: both, it says, "do not charge costs". When I pointed this out, the representative asked for more information. I've provided her with a list of the companies that I know offer fee-based contracts.

Finally, I asked why Publishizer believes writers benefit from having their books pitched to hybrid publishers and self-publishing service providers, which not only require payment but don't typically work with middlemen. "While we do our best to educate [authors] on the differences between self-publishing, hybrid and traditional publishing, we do not choose for them," the representative responded. "Not every book can get a traditional deal, but a lot of books have been realized through Publishizer because we present a range of publishing options that are available, and authors can choose what's best for them...as we are very invested in our authors' success, many have satisfying experiences with us."

All of which is no doubt true, but doesn't really address the question of why it's worth handing over 30% of your crowdfunding earnings for pitches that include companies that are likely to take even more of your money, and that you could just as easily approach on your own.

Conclusions

All in all, the information above suggests that if you post a proposal on Publishizer, the majority of offers you'll receive will likely not be the kind of offers you may have been hoping for, especially given how Publishizer presents itself.

So what does Publishizer actually do for authors? Certainly it helps to generate pre-orders, and some authors have been able to raise substantial sums of money. But Publishizer's poorly-vetted group of publishing partners, top-heavy with fee-chargers, is no boon to authors--and even if the questionables were purged and the misleading listings corrected, you don't necessarily need a middleman to promote your book to independent publishers. You especially don't need an intermediary to pitch your work to fee-charging hybrids or self-publishing platforms or other types of "non-traditional publishers".

As a crowdfunding platform, Publishizer may be worth considering, despite its sizeable commission. As a "literary agency," though, it suffers from the same flaw that doomed the manuscript pitch sites of the past: top-flight publishers are scarce, while marginals and predators roam free. The company representative with whom I corresponded assured me that Publishizer is working to expand and improve its pool of traditional publishers. However, authors who are considering Publishizer for more than raising money should carefully consider how what the site currently appears able to deliver--as opposed to what it claims to deliver--dovetails with their own publishing goals.

Postscript

Despite labeling itself a literary agency, both on its website and in search results, and touting coaching during book campaigns by "our agents", Publishizer includes this disclaimer in its FAQ:


So...not an agency then. Got it.

I'm also curious about the claim that "many agents" use Publishizer. I'd be interested to hear from agents or authors who can confirm this.
 
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