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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 On October 3 (or possibly October 4), it was unpublished--three (or possibly four) days after the contractually-stipulated end date of September 30.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?
 
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