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.

December 30, 2019

Beware: Wid Bastian a.k.a. Widtsoe T. Bastian / Genius Media Inc. / Kairos Phoenix Company


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

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Early in 2019, seventeen writers were recruited to participate in a box set of medical thrillers, called (with unforeseen irony) Do No Harm.

The buy-in: $750, with net income from sales going to two designated charities, and participating writers receiving a pro-rated share of any net income above those contributions. The goal: through cooperative marketing efforts, to get the set on the USA Today bestseller list.

Here's how the opportunity was presented to potential participants (this is from an email that was shared with me):


In other words, right off the bat, authors were being primed not to expect to make money.

Helming the endeavor was a five-year-old PR company called Genius Media Inc., owned by a man called Wid Bastian (full name: Widtsoe T. Bastian). Per this long 2017 discussion on KBoards, one of Genius Media's not-so-genius MOs was to cold-contact writers by form email and offer glowingly-described Kindle Unlimited promotions. "For you, my estimate on an eBook promo is 10,000 plus downloads and 700 plus sales, positive ROI right out of the gate and huge page read income."

The cost: $2,000.

KBoards members urged caution, especially after expert analysis of Genius's claims indicated that its promotions weren't as successful as it advertised, and information offered by a writer who'd paid for a promo suggested that Genius was violating the TOS of the advertising platforms it used. Also noteworthy: this post from a writer who bought two promos from Genius, and lost money on each one. "That is what Genius Media told me to expect, that the first promo would not show a profit, but that by the second or third promo, they would show a profit." (The writer bought a third promo.)

As it turns out, these concerns were a sign of things to come.

Do No Harm was published, as promised, and made the USA Today bestseller list, also as promised. On October 3 (or possibly October 4), it was unpublished--three (or possibly four) days after the contractually-stipulated end date of September 30.

Per the contract (which you can see here), final reporting and payment was due to authors "no later than December 1". December 1 came...and went. Bastian promised anxious authors they'd get everything by December 15.

One day past that deadline, they did receive a report...but not from Genius Media. Between early December and December 16, with no notice or warning, a company called Kairos Phoenix had purportedly acquired Genius. Other than its business registration--in Wyoming, just like Genius's--and hometown--Logan, Utah, again just like Genius's--Kairos was a black box, with zero web presence. It had incorporated less than a month earlier, on November 22. (You can see the report here.)

That wasn't all that was suspicious. Here's Kairos's financial breakdown:


In other words, USA Today bestselling box set Do No Harm hadn't just failed to make a profit, it had lost money. But...where was the revenue from the $750 buy-in fees--which, with 17 authors, totaled $12,750? (Kairos's explanation: it wasn't included because it was "ordinary income" for Genius Media. "As stated in the contract, the fee was paid to 'participate' in DNH Collab by the author and for no other purpose".) Where were revenues for the days the set had been on sale past the unpublish deadline? (Kairos: "The contractual period for DNH Collab was strictly defined in the contract" as September 30, so any revenue past that date was "irrelevant".)

Equally troubling, why were there more than $15,000 in expenses--three-quarters of which were for "labor"--when the contract stipulated that expenses were not to exceed the total of the buy-in fees? According to Kairos, this wasn't really an expense cap: "This provision was specifically and intentionally included in the contract language to avoid the possibility of a 'cash call' – Genius Media asking authors to contribute more to DNH Collab to achieve the goal of making USA Today Bestseller status. No 'cash call' was ever made in the DNH Collab."

Here's the actual contract wording, though (my bolding):
For the purposes of the USA Today Bestseller Medical Thriller Author Publishing Collaborative Boxed Set program, Genius Media shall not incur any publication and promotion expenses of any nature in excess of the fees paid under the terms of its author agreements and shall have no power to obligate [redacted] or any other author for any publication and promotion expense above author fees paid whatsoever.
There's a "cash call" prohibition and an expense cap. But Kairos wanted writers to believe otherwise, so it could inflate expenses and ensure a loss.

It was obvious to Do No Harm participants that Kairos was taking the money and running--avoiding the substantial payouts it would otherwise have to make by retroactively interpreting contract language, and also enabling Bastian himself to claim he was blameless because of Genius's supposed takeover by an unrelated company. (No one was under any illusion that Kairos Phoenix was anything other than Bastian in a different guise.)

Authors were furious. On December 22, two of them, Christoph Fischer and Dan Alatorre, went public with their experience. Others posted warnings on Kairos's corporate business listing.

Do No Harm isn't the first time Bastian has run this scheme, either.


The box set in question appears to be Tales From Big Country, which was published around the same time as Do No Harm. A third set, Galaxia, was pubbed in September, with profits supposedly going to the Well Aware clean water charity. I've been told that Bastian is recruiting for other sets, including a collection of thrillers.

So who is Wid Bastian, a.k.a. Widtsoe T. Bastian?

His LinkedIn profile ("EXPOSE your new book to develop your author brand and sell more books!") identifies him as the owner of Genius Media, and also of an ebook promotion program called Book Dynamite. In an earlier profile on a freelancers' job site, he describes himself as a "published novelist and screenwriter" (more on that below) who "makes most of my daily bread as a ghostwriter." He also has an IMDB profile, presumably because of his efforts to make a film of the life of Greek Orthodox priest Fr. Themi Adamopoulos.

Genius Media's website has been taken offline, but traces remain in the form of cached pages, and here's how it looked in January 2016, courtesy of the Internet Archive (more recent versions haven't been archived). The company has a D+ rating from the BBB. Bastian also owned or was an officer with at least three other companies during the early to mid-1990s: Off & Flying, Prospex Interntaional [sic] (yes, it really was registered with a typo in the name), and Nevada Pension Investment Fund. Both Off & Flying and Prospex had their statuses "permanently revoked" a few years after incorporating. All three are long dead.

There is also a Widtsoe T. Bastian who pleaded guilty to 13 felony counts including embezzlement, money laundering, and bankruptcy fraud in US District Court in North Carolina, and in 2005 was sentenced to one hundred and forty-four months in prison and restitution of more than $3,000,000. Nothing I can find online directly connects Widtsoe T. Bastian of Genius Media to Widtsoe T. Bastian of North Carolina, so it may be a different person. But Widtsoe T. Bastian is quite an unusual name, as a websearch will make clear.

Finally...I can't say "what goes around comes around", since this pre-dates the ripoff that's the subject of this post, but it certainly seems like a case of advance karma: Bastian's own 2010 novel, Solomon's Porch, was published by none other than Tate Publishing & Enterprises, a notorious vanity publisher that scammed thousands of authors and a multitude of staff, and whose owners pleaded guilty in 2017 to an array of felony charges very similar to the ones described in the previous paragraph.

Tate authors suffered terribly at the hands of their unscrupulous publisher, but Wid Bastian is one Tate author I can't feel all that sorry for.

UPDATE 12/31/19: PACER was down yesterday, so I wasn't able to do a case search. I did so this morning, and here's what's there for Widtsoe T. Bastian:


Some of the listings are redundant, and several cite court documents without any links to those documents. But there's enough available to paint a tangled picture of a 1995 Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Nevada involving several companies in addition to the three mentioned above (the case was finally closed in 2002); a 1999 indictment in Nevada "on charges related to the operation of [Bastian's] venture capital firm"; failure to appear in a Nevada court in 2001; and a 2002 arrest in North Carolina, leading to the plea of guilty on 13 felony counts referenced above.

In 2012, Bastian was placed on probation or supervised release, and jurisdiction over his case was transferred to US District Court for Utah. His probation ended on May 4, 2015.

UPDATE 2/21/19: I'm featuring this comment from yesterday, as it's more indication of a pattern (the commenter has shared documentation with me that confirms what they say below):
In 2013-15, I hired Mr. Bastian as a ghost writer and later co-author of a novel we wrote together called Henry and Tom, sold through Amazon/Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).

In mid 2015, Mr. Bastian embezzled money from a joint bank account we opened to pay for marketing campaigns for Henry and Tom. Rather than pursue embezzlement charges, I hired an expensive lawyer in Washington DC to transfer all rights for Henry and Tom to me in exchange for a $4K payment to Wid and a non-disparagement clause for both of us. This seemed at the time like the most expedient and cost effective way to deal with all the problems Mr. Bastian had caused.

I thought this matter was concluded until recently when Amazon/KDP informed me that a debt collection firm had placed a lien on Henry and Tom due to a bankruptcy filed by Wid Bastian/Genius Media Inc. KDP is currently sending my royalties to the collector per the lien. I have filed formal complaints with Attorneys General in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York in an attempt to have the lien removed in states where the debt collectors are registered. I have also filed formal complaints against Wid and Genius Media Inc. with the Attorney General of Utah and the County Attorneys Office in Providence, Utah.

I think blogs like this are creating awareness of the depth and extent of Wid’s continuing criminal activities so we can all work together to stop him from doing this to others and get him to face justice.
You'll note a reference to a bankruptcy. Wid Bastian filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition on January 13, 2020.


A number of victims of his box set schemes are listed as unsecured creditors; if you're one of them, you should have received a snail mail notice, but if you haven't, and are wondering if you're included, here's the Certificate of Notice, with all Bastian's claimed creditors.

The bankruptcy filings also confirm what everybody already knew: Kairos Phoenix was Wid Bastian. The reason he set up this company probably won't surprise you, either.


UPDATE 7/30/20:
I've been reliably informed that the Utah Attorney General's office has opened an investigation into writers' most recent claims surrounding Wid Bastian and his businesses. Updates as I receive them.

December 23, 2019

Writing Contest Beware: Pressfuls


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

On Sunday morning, I woke up (late, I admit) to a flurry of emails about an website I'd never heard of before: Pressfuls.

The writers who contacted me reported that they'd entered a free short story contest this past September.


As you can see, pretty minimal information. At the end of October, they received a mass email (which, curiously, cc'd all the recipients instead of bcc'ing them, so that all email addresses were visible to everyone), announcing the winner:


Although the contest entry info hadn't mentioned that the winner would be published, the writers thought they were done and moved on. Some submitted their contest stories elsewhere. Some of those stories got accepted.

Then, just a few days ago, on December 19--surprise!


Writers were shocked. As far as they knew, they had never granted permission for their stories to be published or turned into audio versions--much less made part of some sort of pay-per-view subscription service. As for the request for PayPal information, that sounded really scammy. Writers who emailed Pressfuls to ask questions or emphasize that they hadn't granted publication rights received a non-responsive response reiterating that their story was going to be published, and that "We will give you more details about it in short time [sic]."

So what is Pressfuls? With a web domain registered just six months ago, its current website (which writers tell me has been overhauled since the contest) presents as a short fiction subscription service, with a bizarrely large variety of paid subscription plans. There is no information whatever about staff, owners, the company, or, on the submission page, payment structure and publishing rights.

There's also a couple of new short story contests with 2020 entry deadlines. And that brings me to my main reason for writing this post. Beyond the questionable happenings in this particular case, Pressfuls is like an archetypal object lesson on the kinds of contests you want to avoid.

Count the red flags:

- No rules or guidelines. The page for the September contest is gone, but writers who contacted me say that there were no posted rules or guidelines--and certainly there are none for the current contests. Bad contest rules are a red flag...but no rules at all is a giant, klaxon-blaring, run-away-now warning sign. Pressfuls' attempt to monetize entries it was never authorized to publish in the first place illustrates why.

Never, never, NEVER enter a contest if you can't find, read, and/or understand the rules.

- No information about rights or payment. Plenty of contests have unfriendly rights demands. For instance, you may have to grant publication rights simply by entering, and the contest sponsor may never release them. At least when that info is present on the sponsor's website, you can't say you weren't warned. But if there's no rights or payment information whatsoever, you are really setting yourself up for the possibility of a nasty surprise...like finding out your entry has been included in a subscription service with a sketchy payment plan.

- No information about the company. Do you seriously want to enter a contest whose organizers or sponsors you know absolutely nothing about--not even where they're located or how long they've been around? I'll give you a hint: No. If you can't confirm who's running the contest, don't enter.

- No information about judges. Part of the prestige of a contest (if it has any--and most contests don't) depends on who is doing the judging. Reputable contests disclose their judges.Otherwise, you have no guarantee the contest isn't just pulling names out of a hat.

- English-language errors. Sure, anyone can make mistakes or typos (although you have to wonder about the professionalism of a contest sponsor that isn't capable of proofing its own website). But if it's an English-language contest, and you see errors or odd syntax that suggest the website has been created by people whose first language is not English, be wary. A lot of scams these days are coming from overseas. The Pressfuls website isn't as bad as many I've seen, but there are enough lapses (dropped plurals, missing articles, mis-spellings--for instance, in several locations "Fantasy" is spelled "Fanstasy") to prompt caution. (Pressfuls' emails provide much clearer examples.)

So what is Pressfuls, really? A phishing scheme? A sleazy way to acquire and monetize content? A clueless would-be publisher with no idea how things should be done? I really can't tell. But none of these possibilities are good ones.

A couple of the writers who contacted me told me that Pressfuls complied (though without any acknowledgment) when they demanded that their stories be taken down. However, another writer said that they tried several times and their story is still online.

Since Pressfuls has no real "contact us" option on its website, my suggestion is to send a DMCA takedown notice to its email address (shortstorycontest@pressfuls.com) or, if that yields no response, to the email address of its web host (abuse@in2net.com). You can find out more about DMCA notices (which are legal notices demanding removal of infringed material from the internet) here. SFWA offers a handy DMCA notice generator.

For more information and cautions about contests, see Writer Beware's Contests and Awards page. I've also written a blog post that covers some of the same ground: Some Tips on Evaluating Writing Contests.

UPDATE 12/24/19: Since I put this post online yesterday, Pressfuls has amended the descriptions on its contests. Originally they looked like the description for the original contest (see above). Now they look like this:


This is not an improvement, since there's still nothing about publication or rights. Also, the copyright info is ignorant on multiple levels. WGA and WGC registrations (which are primarily for screenwriters) are not legally equivalent to US copyright registration--and they don't prove anything anyway, since the author already owns copyright, by law, as soon as the words are written down.

I shouldn't need to say that you really want your publisher to have an accurate understanding of copyright.

Writers tell me that Pressfuls sent out another mass email with instructions on how to have content removed, so it seems they're paying attention. We shall see.

December 20, 2019

How Predatory Companies Are Trying to Hijack Your Publisher Search, Part 3


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

In my first post about the ways that predatory companies attempt to ensnare unwary writers who are searching for publishers, I discussed fake publisher-matching websites. In my second, I exposed the scammy Google ad tactics of vanity publisher Austin Macauley.

In this third post, I'll talk about an equally insidious practice: providing misinformation or even outright lies about traditional publishing, in order to make self- or vanity publishing appear superior.

Yesterday on Twitter, someone tweeted this chart, which purportedly compares traditional publishing and self-publishing.


If you're even slightly savvy about publishing, the inaccuracies are easy to spot. Trad pubs often pay royalties on retail price (not "net sales"), or pay a higher percentage (higher royalties are especially common in the small press world). Trad pubs that pay advances don't withhold them from less popular authors, and they don't require authors to make "certain minimum orders" or to buy thousands of copies of their own books. And while it's often true that smaller traditional publishers don't provide much in the way of PR or marketing support, and larger houses invest more marketing in more popular books and authors, they don't simply ignore 95% of their output (this makes no sense; what business markets only 5% of its products?)

As for author rights...trad pubs do license exclusive rights from authors, sometimes for a period of years, sometimes for the life of copyright (with reversion usually happening well before then). But they don't gain ownership of them (as "all rights are with the publisher" implies), because the author retains copyright--plus, authors can often negotiate to keep some of their subsidiary rights. And although self-publishing is typically non-exclusive, allowing authors to publish on multiple platforms if they wish, they do still have to license publishing and distribution rights to whichever platform or service provider they choose--otherwise, the platform couldn't legally produce and sell their books.

The chart comes from this how-to-self-publish article, which is really just a long ad for PublishEdge, which is (surprise!) a paid publishing services provider.


PublishEdge is a "division" of Zaang Entertainment Pvt Ltd, which, unlike the Philippines-based scams I've been covering so much lately, is based in India. The range of services it sells aren't priced as high as some of the scammers', but there are still plenty of warning signs: no information about who is providing the services on offer (so you have no idea who they are or if they're qualified); no cover or website design samples (so you have no idea what you'd be getting for your money); and this pitch for ghostwriting services, which invites you to "Discover the simple secret to how celebrities and busy professionals get their books published without actually writing", courtesy of "our book writing experts", who (judging from the description of the service) basically type up a Skype interview into a chapter book. Most likely these unnamed "experts" are hired on Upwork or Fiverr or a similar jobs site (holy plagiarism scandal, Batman!).

PublishEdge isn't alone in misrepresenting traditional publishing in order to make itself look more attractive. Among other alternative facts, this chart from Morgan James, a vanity publisher with an author purchase requirement, claims that "many major houses" require authors to buy 5,000 copies or more of their own books (doesn't that make MJ's 2,500 purchase requirement seem appealing?), and that trad pubs provide no PR or marketing support for 94% of their books and authors. (Hmmm. Could PublishEdge have borrowed a little something there?)

Here's another misleading comparison, from Union Square Publishing, a self-styled hybrid (read: vanity) publisher. It too borrows heavily from Morgan James's chart, with several of the same dubious claims. Here's another one--this time from Success Publishing, which sells Chicken Soup-style anthology slots.

This one, from "custom" publisher Momosa Publishing (packages start at $5,900), doesn't tell quite so many fibs, but encourages you to believe that trad pubs cap their royalties at 6%, and don't market their books to libraries. And then there's this from Atmosphere Press, another so-called hybrid, which wants to convince writers that a $5,000 publishing fee will save them from the "raw end of the deal" they'd get from a trad pub, "losing not just their royalties but also the rights to their material and to their control over their art." Not addressed: the likelihood of ever making that $5,000 back.

These are just a few examples; there are many more. If you use the internet as part of your publisher search, you're very likely to encounter them (in some cases, disseminated by self-styled experts who ought to know better). It's a great argument for a step that many writers skip: learning about publishing before diving into the quest for publication. As with all aspects of publishing, knowledge is your greatest ally and your best defense: the more you know about the way things really work, the better protected you will be against the disinformation described above.

Final note: I know that many writers have had bad experiences with traditional publishers--I've had some myself. Especially in the small press world, many traditional (at least in the sense that they don't charge fees) publishers engage in nonstandard and author-unfriendly business practices. There's plenty of discussion of that on this blog. I'm not trying to paint trad pub as perfect, or argue that it's necessarily a better choice for any given writer.

But deliberate distortions like those described above don't help anyone, even if you don't take into account their obvious self-serving agenda. Tarring an entire segment of the publishing market with a broad negative brush--especially where some of the supposed negatives are demonstrably false--is as irresponsible as arguing (as some people still do) that only traditional publishing is a worthwhile path. 

December 11, 2019

Vanity Radio: Why You Should Think Twice Before Paying For an Interview


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

In a super-crowded, hyper-competitive marketplace, one of the main challenges for book authors is to stand out. And where there's a need, there are always unscrupulous operators waiting to take advantage. The internet is awash in worthless schemes and outright scams designed to profit from authors' hunger for publicity and exposure.

I've written about a number of these--Hollywood book-to-screen packages, the hugely marked-up PR options offered by Author Solutions, the plague of marketing scams originating in the Philippines. Others to watch out for include book fair display packages (publishing industry expert Jane Friedman has a good article on why these are not worth your money), pay-to-play book review services, and what I'm going to talk about in this post: vanity radio.

What's vanity radio? In the "writer beware" context, it's radio air time that you, the program guest, have to pay for. Such schemes have been around forever in various forms, aimed at experts and creatives of all kinds, from services that explicitly sell pay-to-play interviews, to show hosts that charge interview fees to defray the fees they themselves have to pay their platforms.

The main selling point is the promise that your interview will be heard by a large and eager audience, giving wide exposure to you and your book (see the pitches that I've pasted in below). But vanity radio is primarily online radio, delivered via platforms like Blog Talk Radio and Spreaker, and streaming services like iTunes, iHeart Radio, and SoundCloud. Online radio listenership is steadily rising, but unless there are subscriber lists (as on YouTube, for instance), there's usually no way to determine the audience for any given host or show--or to authenticate any listenership claims the show may make. Lots of people may be tuning in...or no one at all.

As a result, the only verifiable benefit authors may receive for their money is an audio or audio-and-video clip that they can post to their websites and social media accounts. Whether that's worth it when it costs $99 or $150 or $200 is debatable enough. But when the price tag is four figures?

As always in the realm of junk marketing aimed at writers, Author Solutions has been both the pioneer and the primary practitioner. All its imprints sell vanity radio in some form: here's AuthorHouse's offering, for instance (just $1,099!). iUniverse's is identical. Xlibris and Trafford currently sell teasers rather than interviews (for significantly more money), but through 2017 they too hawked interviews.

Recently, however, AS's leadership in the realm of predatory marketing services has been challenged by a flood of scammy imitators. These copycat ripoff factories have adopted vanity radio in a big way, and they aggressively hawk it to authors, both on its own and as part of costly publishing and marketing packages. Here, for instance, is an offer from Book Vine Press (cost: $1,500):

From Author Reputation Press (cost: £1,500):


From Parchment Global Publishing (cost: $1,499):


The copycats re-sell the services of a number of show hosts (there's a list below), but the three personalities noted above--Kate Delaney with America Tonight Radio, Ric Bratton with This Week in America, and Al Cole with People of Distinction--make the most frequent appearances on the copycats' websites and in their email solicitations. Delaney and Bratton have substantial, legit resumes in TV and radio; Cole is a bit harder to research, but he too seems to have a sizeable track record as a talk show host.

What, if anything, do they know of the reputation and tactics of the copycats that are re-selling their services? I contacted all three for comment last week. Cole's assistant responded in email that "Al Cole knew nothing about this....Our office will certainly look into this." As of this writing, I haven't heard back from Delaney or Bratton.

Given that the copycats routinely charge an enormous markup on products they re-sell (see, for instance, this warning from the Combined Book Exhibit, whose book fair exhibit packages many of the copycats re-sell for hugely inflated prices; the copycats also seriously jack up the fees for paid book reviews such as Kirkus Indie and BlueInk Reviews), it seems a fair bet that the interviews' hefty price tags are substantially inflated as well.

Apart from the question of such interviews' value for book promotion, that seems like reason enough to avoid them.

******

Author Solutions copycats that sell interviews from the individuals mentioned above:

BookVenture, ReadersMagnet, Maple Leaf Publishing, Parchment Global Publishing, Rustic Haws, Branding Nemo, Creative Titles Media, Paradigm Print, Stampa Global, Books Scribe, Matchstick Literary, PageTurner Press, EC Publishing, WestPoint Print and Media: Ric Bratton

LitFire Publishing, Author Reputation Press, ReadersMagnet, BookTrail Agency, Book-Art Press, Box Office Media Creatives, IdeoPage Press, Book Agency Plus: Kate Delaney


ReadersMagnetAuthor Reputation Press, Rustik Haws, URLink Print & Media, Workbook PressParchment Global Publishing, BookWhip: Al Cole


BookTrail Agency: David Serero

BookTrail Agency, Book Agency Plus: Angela Chester


UPDATE 1/9/19: Parchment Global has added the disclaimer in red to its solicitations for Al Cole interviews (it might want to do some proofreading):


I don't know if this was at Mr. Cole's behest (remember, he's the only vanity radio host who responded--if not very expansively--to my request for comment) or is just CYA by Parchment Global itself, but hey--it lets me know that the scammers are still reading my blog.

Do I believe Parchment Global has stopped taking a cut? What do you think?

November 25, 2019

Publisher Alerts: Complaints at Month9 Books, Nonstandard Business Practices at Black Rose Writing


In mid-2016, I wrote about YA publisher Month9 Books' abrupt decision to scale back its list, reverting rights to as many as 50 authors across all its imprints. Explaining the culling, Month9 founder and CEO Georgia McBride cited her own health problems, along with staffing issues and the company's "substantial growing pains" over the past six to nine months.

McBride's announcement triggered a surge of complaints from Month9 authors, who described a host of serious problems at the company, including late or missing payments (for staff as well as authors), problems with royalty accounting, delayed pub dates, broken marketing promises, overcrowded publication schedules, communications breakdowns, and harsh treatment and bullying by McBride.

According to authors and staff, these problems were not new or even recent, but had been ongoing for a long time. Why had authors kept silent? Almost every writer who contacted me mentioned their fear of retaliation--along with the draconian NDA included in Month9's contracts. I've rarely encountered a situation where authors seemed so fearful of their publisher.

Things quieted down after the initial flood of revelations, as they often do. Month9 survived and kept on publishing, though its list continued to shrink: between a high point in 2016 and now, the number of titles appears to have fallen about 50%. Apart from a handful of additional complaints in late 2016 and early 2017 (similar to this one), I didn't hear much about Month9 in the years following.

Until now. Over the past few weeks, I've been contacted by multiple writers who say they are still suffering from the same problems that surfaced in 2016: primarily, late (sometimes very late) royalty and subrights advance payments and statements (in many cases received only after persistent prodding by authors and their agents), and allegations of irregularities in royalty reporting.

The intimidation level, too, seems not to have changed. Most of the authors told me that they feared reprisal for coming forward, and asked me specifically not to mention their names or book titles. (Writer Beware never reveals names or other unique identifying information, unless we receive specific permission from the individual. That disclaimer is included on our website and in our correspondence.)

If you've been following the recent ChiZine scandal, you may be feeling some deja vu--notably, in the alleged existence of a toxic culture within the publisher that makes authors fearful and and helps to keep them silent. It's disappointing to learn that even if the issues that thrust Month9 into the spotlight three years ago have gone quiet, they don't seem to have eased. Writers be warned.

******

I wrote about Black Rose Writing in 2009, in connection with its requirement that authors buy their own books. Writers who submitted were asked how many of their own books they planned to buy; their response was then written into their contracts. (Book purchase requirements are back-end vanity publishing: even if writers aren't being asked to pay for production and distribution, they still must hand over money in order to see their work in print.)

Black Rose got rid of the book purchase requirement a few years later, and claimed to be a completely fee-free publisher. I had my suspicions that money might still somehow be involved, though...and as it turns out, I wasn't wrong. Here's what I've recently learned.

Black Rose authors are still strongly encouraged to buy bulk quantities of their own books, at paltry discounts (unless they spring for 100 or more). Black Rose claims that this is how "authors like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling climbed to the top of the bestseller’s list"--which of course is not even remotely true. Plus, reputable publishers provide promotional copies for free.

Black Rose authors also receive a Cooperative Marketing Catalog that sells a range of pay-to-play marketing and promotional services, with costs ranging from a few hundred dollars to four figures. Purchase is optional--but it's worth remembering that reputable publishers don't sell marketing or other services to their authors, and in any case, much of what's on offer are things that other publishers, even very small ones, do for their authors free of charge, as part of the publication process. 


Authors also regularly receive emails offering additional paid marketing opportunities--such as Amazon ads or special NetGalley deals--or encouraging them to buy into various outside products and services for which Black Rose receives an affiliate fee or credit--such as DartFrog, which for several hundred dollars promises to place books onto selected bookstore shelves, or ProWritingAid, a grammar and style checker Black Rose uses as part (or all?) of its editing process. 


Again, purchase is optional, but it's something of a Catch-22:


Black Rose also seeks to drain its authors' bank accounts in more stealthy ways. Owner Reagan Rothe is a self-described "financial partner" in two additional businesses: the Maxy Awards, a high entry fee book competition that donates "a large part of every entry" to a charity (how large? No idea; that information is not provided); and Sublime Book Review, a pay-to-play review service.

Though Mr. Rothe's financial interest in these businesses is not disclosed on the business's websites, both businesses are clearly energetically promoted to Black Rose authors. On Sublime's website, nineteen of the first 20 book reviews are for Black Rose books. There's also this, from the marketing catalog (note the lack of disclaimer):


As for the Maxys, thirteen of the 17 winners and runners-up for 2019 are Black Rose books.

Mr. Rothe does admit his relationship with the businesses in this recent email to Black Rose authors--though only to afford them yet another opportunity to give him money:


November 22, 2019

Issues at Audible's ACX: Attempted Rights Fraud, Withdrawn Promotional Codes


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Two issues involving Audible's ACX have come across my desk recently.

Rights Fraud

I've heard from several self- and small press-pubbed authors who report that they've found their books listed on ACX as open to narrator auditions...except that they, or their publishers, didn't put them there. This appears to be an attempt to steal authors' audio rights.

Below is one listing. Here's another and another and another. (All of these listings have been invalidated by ACX.)


See "Comments from the Rights Holder" at the bottom. The purported company, Publishing D LLC, does not show up on any searches.

The fraud seems pretty elaborate. Here's what one of the authors who contacted me told me:


These comments from a freelance audiobook narrator illustrate that "Publishing D" is not an isolated incidence.

Promotional Code Shenanigans

Multiple authors have contacted me to report that they've received an email from ACX withdrawing their promotional codes. The cited reason: "unusual activity," with no explanation of what that means.

The authors say that they have not used the codes improperly or violated ACX guidelines; in some cases, they've used the codes only a handful of times or not at all. See, for instance, blog posts by authors G. Michael Vasey and Adam Piggott. Per discussions on the KBoards and Reddit, a lot of authors seem to be affected.

Is this one of Amazon's (Audible's parent company) periodic crackdowns on misuse or fraud that has inadvertently ensnared innocent authors? According to author and self-publishing expert David Gaughran, ACX promo code scamming is a major problem, and Amazon's anti-abuse sweeps often involve a lot of collateral damage. Or could it be an error--a glitch or rogue algorithm?

So far, authors' efforts to get a fuller explanation have run up against the black box that is Amazon:


If I hear anything further, I'll update this post.

UPDATE 11/27/19: One of the authors who alerted me to the promo code withdrawal has received a notice saying that their codes are reinstated--however, they say that the promo code tab has yet to appear in their dashboard.


UPDATE 2/25/29: More about ACX scams, from a comment left by a narrator:
About the ACX thing...I was contacted by ACX to narrate three books, however, the person who offered the contracts kept emailing and frantically telling me to send them my book codes. I got leary and called ACX. They said unfortunately there are many scams taking place where if a book is "unclaimed" in their system, someone may grab it and offer it as an audiobook contract. Then they keep the codes and blackmarket sell them. They do not pay the narrators. Many other authors are experiencing it, they said, but they have no way to regulate it.

I declined the offers and got a nasty note from the contract holder. I was also told that since I corresponded with them, they had my email that is associated with Amazon..the same one. So, ACX said I had to go change my email on Amazon or they would have access there too. Geez.

November 15, 2019

Scandal Engulfs Independent Publisher ChiZine Publications


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

If you're not part of the horror or speculative fiction community, you may not be aware of the scandal that over the past two weeks has engulfed ChiZine Publications, a (previously) highly-regarded Canadian independent publisher.

In September of last year, several authors, including Ed Kurtz, made a complaint to the Horror Writers Association about long-overdue royalties at ChiZine. On November 5 of this year, after the complaint became public knowledge, CZP posted a statement on its Facebook page, claiming that Kurtz's royalties were "currently paid in full" and that "Any other monies he might be due will be paid on his next royalty statement". Kurtz's response, posted by his partner on Facebook a day later, was blistering:
The statement from Chizine neglects a number of salient facts, such as the moment in July 2018, at Necon, when I explained to Brett Savory that my partner was facing a layoff, our cat was ill, we were in severe financial distress, and I had *never* been paid a single cent of royalties in what was at that time almost two years for a moderately successful book. He actually grinned and said, "Things are hard for everyone right now" before walking away. The following morning it was reported to me that Sandra was loudly complaining in the dealer room about me having asked about my royalties, and of course the two of them went on a whirlwind trip around the world a few weeks after that, showing us all that things weren't so rough for them, after all.

In fact, I'd asked after my royalties several times and was rebuffed or given excuses every single time (usually something wrong with their accounting software or something similar, which I later learned they’d been saying to authors for years). I only went to the HWA after several other frustrated CZP authors (one of whom hadn't been paid in five years!) strongly encouraged me to do so. I expressed fear of bullying and/or retaliation, and some of these authors promised me they'd have my back (they didn't). And yes, a lot of us got paid through my efforts, though it is untrue I'm paid in full. I was never paid royalties for the months of my first year of publication, 2016, though CZP continues to claim I was. I just gave up on this.
Kurtz's experience was not isolated.

******

Between 2010 and 2015, Writer Beware received a handful of complaints (fewer than five) about ChiZine from authors who cited months-late royalty payments or long waits for contracts. Because the complaints were so few, and also because the authors all did eventually receive their payments or their contracts (though in most cases only after persistent prodding), it wasn't clear to me whether the tardiness indicated a pattern of problems, or was the kind of occasional glitch that can afflict otherwise reputable small presses with small staff and tight finances.

As it turns out, those few complaints were just the tiniest bubbles drifting up from what appears to be a roiling ocean of dysfunction.

Following Kurtz's public response, CZP authors and staff began to come forward with their own experiences--a tsunami of serious allegations including non-payment (some staff say they were never paid for years of work), extremely late or missing royalty payments (years in arrears in some cases; many authors report having to fight for what payment was received), erratically-produced royalty statements (CZP breached at least some of its own contracts by sending out royalties once a year instead of bi-annually--more on that below), missed pub dates, broken marketing promises, and financial mismanagement--especially concerning, since a big chunk of CZP's budget comes from grants and subsidies. (Former CZP staff member Michael Matheson has written a pair of illuminating posts on CZP's finances, including its treatment of grant money and habitual financial distress.)

Staff and authors also--in multiple, strikingly similar posts and complaints, including some received by Writer Beware--cite a toxic work culture that featured bullying, intimidation, sexual harassment, racism, gaslighting, and more. Several of those who contacted me told me that they felt CZP operated "like a cult," with charismatic leaders at the top who were admired and feared in equal measure, and whom many dared not defy.

This account only scratches the surface. For much more:
On November 11, CZP's founders, Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory, posted a statement on the CZP blog and Facebook page indicating that they have decided to "step down." Although the statement mentions financial issues ("we have taken a short-term personal loan to bring payments up to date"), it doesn't address the many other complaints that have been leveled against the company--and, notably, does not include an apology.

The response has not been kind.

******

Despite all of the above, there are still those who continue to defend CZP, and to brush off the statements by writers and staff. For example, this, from editor Stephen Jones (Jones's post has been removed; this is a screenshot posted to Twitter):

What stands out for me here is not just the skepticism that whistleblowers always have to face (and which, even when the publisher doesn't try to intimidate or engage in reprisals, makes it so much harder for whistleblowers to come forward), but the defense of unprofessional business practice--not just by CZP but, apparently, by small press publishers in general. Small presses are doing something great for writers and readers, so we should "cut them some slack" when they fail to pay, or don't fill book orders, or miss a pub date, or engage in some other kind of behavior that has a negative impact on staff and authors. That's "simply the nature of small press publishing." Deal with it!

It's a really common argument. I can't tell you how often I've seen some version of it--not just from toxic or troubled publishers, but from the writers they are screwing over. But it is bullshit. Complete and utter bullshit.

No matter how "worthy" a publisher may be, that does not give it the right to abuse its writers or its staff--whether by accident or design. Publishers function in the realm of art, but they also need to function like businesses--not like cults of personality, not like sinecures, not like kitchen-table hobby projects where it doesn't really matter that they know little about publishing and have never run a business as long as they've got good intentions. You don't get a pass because you've got a noble goal. You don't get a pass because independent publishers are struggling and we need more of them. You don't even get a pass because you're putting out good books from disenfranchised authors. You need to run your business right, and treat your writers and your staff right, or you have no business calling yourself a publisher.

Which brings me to my next point. The scope and range of what has apparently been happening at ChiZine is bigger than usual (and having seen as many small press implosions as I have over the years, it's amazing to me that it took so long for the scandal to break). But it's important to emphasize that it is not an isolated occurrence. Contract breaches, financial malfeasance, even the kind of harassment and gaslighting and dictatorial behavior that CZP authors and staff describe--all are rampant in the small press world. Just go back through a few years of the entries on this blog, and you'll see plenty of examples.

I don't mean to tar all small presses with the same brush. There are, it's important to acknowledge, many small and indie publishers that operate with complete professionalism and do all they can to treat their authors right. But there is a huge, huge problem in the small press segment of the publishing industry, and we don't do writers--or readers--any favors in dismissing or downplaying or making excuses for it.

I'm not the only one who is making this point. Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who had payment issues with CZP and also has experience running a micro-press, addresses the issue in a Twitter thread:


In a blog post, former CZP staffer Michael Matheson responds to those who would like to see publishers like CZP dealt with more kindly:

And, commenting on the Chizine situation, writer and reviewer Gabino Iglesias points out:


I agree 100%. But I'm not holding my breath.

******

The scandal has unfolded very quickly but there've already been consequences. High Fever Books reports "a mass exodus" from CZP, with authors requesting rights reversions for their books, and withdrawing stories from CZP's forthcoming Christmas anthology. The Ontario Arts Council, one of CZP's funders, has recently removed CZP from its list of grant recommenders. And SFWA has issued a statement:


******

Finally, some semi-wonky publishing stuff.

There's been some discussion of irregularities with CZP's royalty statements. I've seen a number of these, kindly shared with me by CZP authors, and while they're somewhat of a chore to figure out and are missing some information that ideally should be present, the numbers do add up. However, a few things are sub-optimal.

- CZP's contract boilerplate empowers the publisher to set a "reasonable" reserve against returns. There are no specifics, so it's basically up to the publisher to decide what "reasonable" is.

For CZP, "reasonable" seems to mean 50%. This seemed high to me, so I did a mini-canvass of literary agents on Twitter. Most agreed that smaller is better--maybe 25-30%, though some felt that 50% was justifiable depending on the circumstances. They also pointed out that the reserve percentage should fall in subsequent reporting periods (CZP's remains at 50%, unless boilerplate has been negotiated otherwise), and that publishers should not hold reserves beyond two or three years, or four or five accounting periods (CZP has held reserves for some authors for much longer).

(If you're unclear on what a reserve against returns is, here's an explanation.)

- Per CZP's contract, royalties are paid "by the first royalty period falling one year after publication." What this means in practice (based on the royalty statements I saw) is that if your pub date is (hypothetically) April of 2016, you are not eligible for payment until the first royalty period that follows your one-year anniversary--which, since CZP pays royalties just once a year on a January-December schedule, would be the royalty period ending December 2017. Since publishers often take months to issue royalty statements and payments following the end of a royalty period, you'd get no royalty check until sometime in 2018--close to, or possibly more than, two full years after publication.

In effect, CZP is setting a 100% reserve against returns for at least a year following publication, and often much more. This gives it the use of the author's money for far too long, not to mention a financial cushion that lets it write smaller checks, since it doesn't have to pay anything out until after returns have come in (most sales and most returns occur during the first year of release).

I shouldn't need to say that this is non-standard. It's also, in my opinion, seriously exploitative.

- And...about that annual payment. It too is non-standard--even the big houses pay twice a year, and most small publishers pay quarterly or even more often. It's also extra-contractual--at least for the contracts I saw. According to CZP's boilerplate, payments are supposed to be bi-annual after that initial year-or-more embargo. The switch to annual payment appears to have been a unilateral decision by CZP owners for logistical and cost reasons, actual contract language be damned (I've seen documentation of this).

- A final wonky contract point: CZP's contract boilerplate mentions royalty payments (as in, they're bi-annual)--but does not, anywhere, mention royalty statements.

A publishing contract absolutely needs to bind a publisher not just to pay, but to account royalties on a regular basis (whether or not payments are due). If there's no contractual obligation for the publisher to provide royalty accounting, it may decline to do so--and that's not theoretical, I've gotten more than a few complaints about exactly this. Just one more reason to get knowledgeable advice on any publishing contract you're thinking of signing.

November 7, 2019

Contest Caution: The Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Founded in 2010, The Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award bills itself as "the richest prize for a single short story in the English language." And indeed, the prize is major: the winner receives a cool £30,000 (no, I did not add extra zeroes.)

With judges yet to be finalized, the selection process will include a 20-story longlist announced in May 2020, a six-story shortlist unveiled in June 2020, and the winner revealed on July 2. The shortlisted stories will be published in an Audible audiobook, with included writers receiving "an extra £1,000 fee, on top of a prize payment of £1,000". To be eligible, writers must previously have had at least one work published in the UK or Ireland by an "established print publisher or an established printed magazine" (the Terms and Conditions include an extensive list of the kinds of publishers and magazines that don't qualify). The contest is open for entries until 6:00 pm on December 13.

You can read more about the award, including the prestigious judges who've participated and the well-known writers who've submitted stories, here.

So what's the catch? -- because you know I wouldn't be writing this post if there weren't one. Well, as so often happens, it's in the Terms and Conditions. Specifically:


To summarize this dense paragraph: simply by entering the competition, you are granting a sweeping, non-expiring license not just to Times Newspapers Limited (The Sunday Times' parent company), but also to Audible and any other licensees of TNL, to use your story or any part of it in any way they want, anywhere in the world, without payment to or permission from you.

This is far from the first time I've written about "merely by entering you grant us rights forever" clauses in the guidelines of literary contests, some of them from major publishers or companies that should know better. Sure, in this case the license is non-exclusive, so you could sell your story elsewhere--but only as a reprint, because by granting non-exclusive rights to one company, you remove your ability to grant first rights to another, at least for as long as the initial rights grant is in force.

It's not uncommon for literary contests that involve publication to bind all entrants to a uniform license or grant of rights--so that, when winners are chosen, the license is already in place. But ideally, the license should immediately expire for entries that are removed from consideration--or, if the contest sponsor wants to retain the right to consider any entered story for publication (as TNL clearly does--see Clause 4.2, below), rights should be released within a reasonable period of time after the contest finishes--say, three or six months. There's simply no good reason to make a perpetual claim on rights just in case, at some unspecified point in the future, you might just possibly want to use them.

Not to mention--why should Audible get to make this same claim?

There's a couple of other things to be aware of. Shortlisted authors enter into a 12-month exclusive contract with Audible, for which they are given a "one-off" lump-sum payment (the £1,000 noted above). But thereafter, Audible retains the right "to record, distribute and market such audio version for at least ten (10) years." Again, this right is non-exclusive--but there's no indication that Audible has to pay these authors for potentially exploiting their work for a decade. (If you don't consent to these terms, you can't be shortlisted.)


Finally, although publication is guaranteed only for the shortlist, TNL reserves the right to publish longlist and non-listed entries as well. Great! Except...there's nothing to suggest these writers would be paid either.


There's no question that this is a prestigious--and, for the winner, rich--award. But sober evaluation is definitely in order here. Enter at your own risk.

October 29, 2019

Fireside Press Cancels Multiple Contracts

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Last week, the SFWA Contracts Committee issued this advisory.
SFWA Contracts Committee Advisory on No-advance Contracts

Recently, SFWA's Contracts Committee was made aware of a situation in which a well-liked publisher canceled the publication of a number of books it had contracted to publish. The publisher said the decision was made because of "unexpected changes" at the company. The Committee has reviewed the contract in use, which lacked a provision for such a cancellation. The Committee believes that canceling a contracted book that satisfies the author’s obligations is at odds with the spirit of the contract. Making this situation worse is the fact that these were no-advance contracts. Because no advance was paid, the publisher could make this decision without financial penalties. The authors' books, were, in effect, put in limbo for many months and the authors received nothing but an apology. Besides depriving the authors of the ability to sell the books elsewhere during this delay and putting off any income from the books into the indefinite future, the authors careers suffer as a result.

Publishers of all sizes may find themselves unable to live up to their contractual commitments for a wide variety of reasons, some of which could not have been reasonably anticipated. Hence, the Contracts Committee urges writers to think carefully about signing a contract that provides no advance, or only a nominal advance, while tying up their work for a lengthy period of time. Critically, payment of an advance gives an indication the publisher actually has the financial resources to meet its obligations. Publishers who do not pay advances or pay only nominal advances should include language in their contracts specifying how they can cancel a book and what happens if they should cancel a book, including a specified amount of compensation to the author.

SFWA Contracts Committee
October 25, 2019

Legal Disclaimer: The contract alert should not be understood to be legal advice. The issues presented by contract law are complex. Authors should consult a competent attorney familiar with the business of publishing as well as contract law before signing any contract.
The publisher in question is Fireside Press.

The cancellations were first reported on October 8 by Jason Sanford in his Genre Grapevine column, and discussed on October 9 in Mike Glyer's File 770. Fireside publisher Pablo Defendini issued a statement on October 8, in which he revealed that the five canceled contracts were for manuscripts that were "unpublished and unannounced", and attributed the cancellations to disruptions caused by editorial departures.

Author Meg Elison, one of the canceled authors, did not find this to be a sufficient explanation...and she was livid.



A few days later, Defendini issued an apology. "I can see now how [the cancellation emails] read as callous, uncaring, and dismissive of the authors’ feelings," he wrote. "I’m very sorry for that....My behavior was not consistent with Fireside’s values, and I deeply regret it."

Beyond the Contracts Committee's general warning about no-advance contracts (and if you're part of the small press world, you know how common these are): multiple simultaneous contract cancellations are not frequent or normal, and can signal trouble beyond whatever the publisher offers as an explanation (if it explains at all). Ditto for a publisher that suddenly starts offering to revert rights on request.

Fireside's situation also highlights the risks of signing with a publisher that's essentially a one-person operation (as Defendini admits in his apology). With the best will in the world, the publisher can be sidelined by a single bad event (personal or professional), leading to glitches, errors, and delays in scheduling, payment, and more. Writer Beware's files are stuffed with such stories.

Troubled publishers do recover, or at least hang on. Month9, which canceled dozens of contracts in 2016, is still publishing, as is Permuted Press, which axed an undisclosed number of titles in 2015 (both publishers cited overstocked lists, though in both cases there were other issues as well). In the short term, though, if a publisher is or has been actively shedding writers, it's best to hold off on submitting until it's clearer what's going on.
 
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